Biotech can revolutionize healthcare. Here’s how to unlock its potential

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Valeria D’Amico, Specialist, C4IR Network and Partnerships, World Economic Forum

  • Biotech and its applications are rapidly evolving and have the potential to revolutionize industries, including healthcare.
  • But forward-thinking businesses, governments and academia need to work together to realize biotechnology’s full promise.
  • C4IR Serbia recently launched at the Biotech Future Forum as biotech was revealed to be the country’s biggest exporting sector.

Biotechnology, or biotech, and its applications are evolving at breakneck speed – revolutionizing industries, including medicine, agriculture, energy and chemical and materials through the creation of products and processes that have never before existed.

The Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Serbia (C4IR Serbia) was recently launched at the Biotech Future Forum, where forward-thinking businesses, governments, and academia gathered to discuss and promote the development and application of biotechnology, particularly in medicine and healthcare.

Here’s what leading experts from different sectors advised.

How is biotech shaping our future?

The full potential and impact of biotech and artificial intelligence (AI) goes beyond our imagination. Academics and experts foresee a huge revolution shaped by the interaction between new technologies and traditional systems.

For example, biotechnology in healthcare has maximized effectiveness by increasing medical personalization and individually designed treatments. In this direction, pairing biotech with AI and big data will help digest the complex data generated by the healthcare industry – unlocking deeper and richer patterns for treatment.


How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

Even beyond the medical system, people could see their everyday diets, exercise regimes and personal care transform to improve health and reduce the impacts of an aging society – and all these applications are just in healthcare.

Biotech and AI have applications beyond that will help us manage challenges from climate change, food security and energy. The goal, for experts in the sector, is moving from applications that prevent health issues to actual prediction. That is not beyond our imagination at all.

How can governments create an ecosystem for biotech?

The government glues connections and plays an active role in establishing a thriving biotech ecosystem. In the case of Serbia, they embraced a “if you build it, they will come” approach – as described by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić.

Promoting heavy domestic investment in science and technology infrastructure, skills, and transformation can spark interest and foreign investment. With a targeted strategy to drive digital transformation, the country’s ICT sector has grown from €3.7 million in earnings to €2.5 billion this year.

This made biotech the biggest exporting sector in Serbia, as well as largest creator of new jobs, according to Prime Minister Brnabić at the Biotech Future Forum.

Experts believe that there is no unique innovation driving the future of biotechnology. Rather, it will be the combination of innovations that will unlock major dividends.

For example, the combination of quantum and biotechnology could provide a cure for cancer. Not by eradicating cancer itself, but by reducing the impact and treatment of cancer to that of the common cold – an innovation any government can and should enable.

Any new technology comes with challenges, but it is the role of the government to transform such challenges in opportunities. Innovation will always evolve ahead of investment and regulations, and a farsighted government will make their regulations agile to keep up with technological speed. This includes reforming legal frameworks, setting visions and plans, establishing dialogues among sectors, and enabling funds for development. In this process, collaboration is key.

What are businesses doing to accelerate Biotech innovation?

From start-ups to multinational organizations, innovation needs to be driven through ecosystems, not ‘ego-systems’ dominated by individuals or select groups of stakeholders. According to experts, the opportunity for innovation is always there, but the lack of a collective mission can impede its acceleration.

Huma, a developer of digital-first health platforms, highlighted how, during the peak of COVID-19, advancements that would have normally taken six months were achieved in two weeks.

This was because people were driven to projects with a sense of “shared responsibility” for a “common purpose” in order to overcome the pandemic impasse as soon as possible. But now that such collective action has disappeared, the timeframes for progress have increased again.

As such, for collaboration to be successful, any partnership should be built at “eye-level”: if each party can understand the other’s incentives, it is easier to join forces and achieve a common goal.

It is also important to build systems enabling effective decision-making. The bigger an organization is, the more difficult it may be for it to drive timely decisions on investment in, for example, biotech research or trials, due to complex decision-making models.

This could be overcome by business instilling a baseline knowledge of their technologies in senior leadership to avoid gaps in decision making execution and design. They can also empower decision making down the chain or increase access to senior leadership.

As an example, the large science and technology company Merck runs an innovation challenge empowering bottom-up ideas by bringing students from all over the world to develop cutting-edge ideas for unmet medical needs and win its €20,000 Innovation Cup.

How do Fourth Industrial Revolution Centres approach healthcare innovation?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution Centres (4IR centres) work locally with government and business. This enables them to directly identify the cycles holding technology back from progress. For instance, new (bio)technologies must be tested before policy and legislation change to support their adoption.

However, without changing policies, companies have no means to verify such technologies. Likewise, the use of bio and health data over time promises to improve the quality of data.

But not all data collected is being used because its quality is not deemed sufficient. It is thus necessary to train stakeholders to understand advanced technologies, to build trust mechanisms in collaboration, and make sure solutions are designed to be scalable.

4IR Centres overcome such impasse by illustrating real value to diverse stakeholders through practical use cases and conducting tests or pilots of different policy and governance approaches that can improve a healthcare system.


How is the World Economic Forum ensuring the ethical development of artificial intelligence?

The World Economic Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning brings together global stakeholders to accelerate the adoption of transparent and inclusive AI, so the technology can be deployed in a safe, ethical and responsible way.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

For example, as part of India’s digital health initiative, C4IR India promoted the use of pilot and sandboxes to test 100+ solutions, as well as the establishment of “trust free zones”, where security and privacy meets at test-design, rather than agreed every single technological application.

C4IR Brazil tested and refined the AI Procurement in a Box toolkit to support AI adoption in hospitals, while C4IR Rwanda is exploring new data privacy laws can apply to their healthcare systems.

Given the potentials of new biotech in healthcare, as well as in many other sectors involving human interaction, we need to work together to make sure economic development does not entail human downturn.

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