Guest Blog: What is Biotechnology by Robert Klein

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I was recently asked to present at Singularity University at a workshop titled “The Business of Biotech”. This seemed like a great opportunity both to step back a bit and think about biotechnology in a broader sense and to see what the Singularity University is all about (my good friend Ruby has been raving about it since taking the Executive Program).
By way of background, I’ve been in the biotech industry for about twenty years (time flies!) since getting my PhD at MIT studying molecular genetics.
I’ve spent most of my professional career working on genomics with some serious detours into drug development. While I’ve done some of this at large biotechs including Genentech, I prefer the small, intimate, exciting, and life or death environment of a startup. Startups also allow me to wear different hats at different times. Sometimes I’m in charge of science. Sometimes I’m the CEO. All depends on what needs to get done and how the team comes together.
Kristina Hathaway the organizer,  asked me to give a talk titled ‘What is Biotechnology?’  It was actually pretty fun to put together since it is easy to forget that biotech encompasses so much more than just genomics and drug development – my normal myopic view of the field.
One big revelation for me was that the first true ‘killer app’ for biotech was invented 5,000 years ago. Its called beer.
Here are the slides I presented at the session – I hope you enjoy them! Slides: What is biotechnology?
If you have any questions or would like to get in touch you can email me at or follow me on twitter @rdklein

Biotechnology 101 Slides for Singularity University

Biotechnology 101 for Singularity University

As many of you are aware, I recently gave a talk at the very prestigious Singularity University.  This is a program co-funded by NASA and Google to study how exponential technologies can solve the global challenges that afflict 1 billion people or more.

Check out

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Biotechnology 101 for Singularity University SLIDES

The 2011 Graduate Studies Program or GSP11 as it is known among the Singularitans, is a 12 week program where 80 of the brightest and most accomplished individuals from over 35 countries have assembled at NASA AMES to learn the exponential technologies in the following areas

Technology Tracks AI & Robotics
Networks & Computing Systems
Biotechnology & Bioinformatics
Medicine & Neuroscience
Resource Tracks Futures Studies & Forecasting
Policy, Law & Ethics
Finance & Entrepreneurship
Application Tracks Energy & Ecological Systems
Space & Physical Sciences

I was lucky enough to be invited to give them the basics of Biotechnology and Genomics and for those of you that are interested, my slides are posted above.


Amazing Collaboration between Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative  and Ohio State University which will bring personal genomic information closer to the individuals via the health care system.  Congrats to both sides for this great accomplishment.


February 8, 2011


Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative to bring Genome-Informed Medicine into the Clinic at Ohio State CAMDEN, N.J. – Coriell Institute for Medical Research announced a partnership today in which Ohio State University Medical Center physicians are incorporating genetic risk information into their patients’ electronic medical records, through their participation in the Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative® (CPMC®) research study. The goal of the CPMC study is to understand the utility of genome information in patient care and develop best practices for the field. “By providing personal genetic risk data directly to both physicians and their patients, we have a unique opportunity to examine how personalized medicine can be used in the clinic,” said Michael Christman, Ph.D., president and CEO of Coriell. “This is an important step toward effectively integrating genome information into routine medical care.” The Coriell/OSU Medical Center partnership brings together two leaders in the emerging field of personalized medicine: Coriell, a renowned non-profit research institute engaged in the study of human genetic diseases and translation into genome-informed clinical care, and OSU Medical Center, an institute dedicated to saving lives and improving the quality of life by translating scientific discoveries in the lab to a patient’s bedside. The collaboration involves 30-35 Ohio State cardiologists and primary care physicians and 1,800 of their patients who have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure or hypertension. The patients’ genomic information will be entered into their electronic medical records and observations will be made as to how their physicians use the personalized genetic risk information to make clinical care decisions. The study will reveal whether genome-informed medicine has utility in practice, and how likely doctors are to use the information when it is made available to them. “We are providing physicians with the technology and educational tools to deliver care that is customized to the needs of each individual,” said Christman. Congestive heart failure will affect 5.7 million Americans and lead to 300,000 deaths this year. Hypertension affects nearly one-quarter of adults in the nation. As chronic heart disease patients are often treated with multiple medications, personalized medicine can help physicians make the best prescribing decisions and also identify disease risks, resulting in safer and more accurate care for patients. In addition to monitoring physician behavior and knowledge, the impact of genetic counseling on patient behaviors will also be studied. While the CPMC offers genetic counseling to all participants free of charge (via phone and email), the Coriell/OSU Medical Center collaboration requires some participants to attend an in-person genetic counseling session. Participants will be asked to complete a series of surveys regarding the understanding of their risk, knowledge of genetics, what they did after learning of their personalized risk information, and with whom they shared their results. Differences between the two groups will provide insight into the role genetic counselors play as educators in personalized medicine. The executive director of Ohio State’s Center for Personalized Health Care, and a co-investigator on the Coriell/OSU Medical Center partnership, Clay Marsh, MD, recognizes the need to engage patients to become more actively involved in their own healthcare management and sees the Coriell collaboration as that opportunity. “Overall, we want to improve people’s lives through healthcare that is predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory,” said Marsh. ### CONTACT: Coriell Institute for Medical Research Director of Communications & Development Courtney Kronenthal, Ph.D. 856-757-9752 About Coriell Institute and the CPMC research study – Coriell Institute for Medical Research ( is an internationally known, non-profit, biomedical research institution headquartered in Camden, NJ. Founded in 1953, Coriell is the world’s leading biobank resource for biological materials, home to the Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative® (CPMC®) research study, and an active player in the field of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The CPMC research study is examining the usefulness of personal genome information in health management. The forward-looking, collaborative effort involves volunteer study participants who submit a small saliva sample for genome analysis, answer online health questionnaires about family history, lifestyle and personal medical history, and in return, receive personal risk assessments for potentially actionable health conditions as well as responses to commonly prescribed medications. Coronary artery disease, lupus, melanoma, age-related macular degeneration, prostate cancer, iron overload, and type 1 and type 2 diabetes are currently reported. Future releases include genetic information related to medication response, such as how patients react to Plavix®, a commonly used drug for prevention of blood clots. Coriell has established partnerships with several hospitals and health service providers, including Cooper University Hospital, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Virtua Health, Helix Health of Connecticut and Ohio State University Medical Center. Launched in December 2007, the study will initially enroll 10,000 participants, and also aims to utilize participants’ medical history and genetic data to discover unknown genetic sites that affect susceptibility to disease and response to medications. For more, visit: About OSU Medical Center – Ohio State University Medical Center, located in Columbus, OH, comprises six signature programs focused on cancer, critical care, heart, imaging, neurosciences and transplantation, where each program provides science-based and individually tailored patient care. Ohio State educates a large percentage of the region’s physicians and provides advanced training and continuing education for clinicians. For more, visit: Courtney Kronenthal, Ph.D. Director, Communications & Development Coriell Institute for Medical Research 403 Haddon Avenue Camden, NJ 08103

Why Quora Is Perfect for Life Sciences and Health Care.

Imagine a place where you can ask any question that comes into your head and your question could be answered by anyone in the world with expertise in that area in real-time.  What would you do with it? What questions would you ask?  Imagine being able to showcase your expertise in your field, network with other experts and have lively discussions online, helping you and enabling you to perfect your answers. Imagine this resource of well answered questions from world leading experts is available for everyone to view and participate in.  This is the idea behind Quora.
Quora is a new knowledge social media site, established in June 2009 which is currently attracting over 200,000 subscribers per month as of September 2010 and its users are serious people with some serious knowledge.  Many C-suite executives and real experts from the tech industries have already adopted it and are asking and answering questions,  making industry leaders accessible to the masses.
The social side of it means you can follow specific people, or topics or specific questions.  This means that your feed is always filled with useful information which you have specifically subscribed to.  I see it as an optimized mix of blogging and Wikipedia.  In addition you can link your questions and answers into other social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs to cast the net of knowledge even wider.
There are a few reasons why Quora has the potential to be particularly useful in the life sciences and health care industries which are by nature competitive, collaborative and educational.
  1. The ability to tie user identity with the act of Q&A hugely increases the credibility of the answers posted on Quora.
  2. It allows and even encourages multiple revisions of content for one question, meaning that the information can be kept accurate and current as new data becomes available.
  3. It shows editorial history meaning that through time, you can see how discoveries were made and how ideas developed through multiple contributor interactions
  4. It supports multiple viewpoints
  5. Quora enables very broad as well as very deep information.  The range of topics is very broad and the contributors are from a diverse set of disciplines. The act of asking very specific questions enables the answers to provide very deep content.
I can see the appeal of Quora for Science and health care, Twitter is limiting by 140 characters, Facebook may be a little too social, linked in is based on connection only not information so Quora could be the answer – a professional way to share information and have people follow you based on the knowledge you can contribute.
So how can this platform be used in the Life Sciences and Health care?
  • Collaboration Makes the most of the collaborative nature of science – imagine a scientific theory or answer where details can be added/edited by leading experts from all around the world in a real-time manner like a collaborative paper authored by all the experts in the world who may or may not even know each other!
  • Communities Provides an excellent platform to develop online communities interested in a specific topic. On twitter there is a very tight knit group of tweeters on genomics and personalized medicine.  Quora could be used a platform to aggregate the incredible content created by that community in one place, as a central resource – think communal blogging.
  • Technical Marketing On the commercial side of science – ie biotech companies and tool providers – we have to remember that no one likes being ‘sold to’  especially scientists – Quora can be used as platform to create technical content which can engage scientists interest in your companies products through data and through peer recommendations. In addition it can be used as the channel for collating  technical information as part of an integrated social media strategy.
  • Medical Advice Imagine the implications for learning about disease from a health care perspective – recently, a member of my family was diagnosed with cancer – I obviously wanted to learn about the disease my first thought (having been a Quora user for a while) was to ask the question – ‘What are the latest cutting edge treatments for Hepatocellular carcinoma?’  Within 20 minutes,  a knowledgeable person directed me to a site where all the latest clinical trials are happening.   Quora is currently limited by the fact that there aren’t that many doctors or clinicians on Quora yet – but imagine the implications for health care if multiple doctors were answering that question and others like it in real-time or at least within a few hours? The next generation of medicine will spawn the e-patient – the Empowered patient where we can quickly access all sorts of experts who can give us the latest medical advice.
  • Education It’s the everyday person that will find Quora interesting as its easy to understand and everyone has questions they have always wanted to know the answers too.  Think what this means from an education perspective.  Science is all about dissemination of information and when it comes to health care – education of the masses is key.  One area where this particularly important is in direct to consumer genomics.  Educating the public on the value of genetic information and what the results mean for them.  23&me is in fact one of the very few biotech companies in the space who have actively started participating on Quora – there are a lot of questions asked and many people answering them too.
  • Recruitment Resumes are out and personal branding is in!  When I am recruiting, (for scientific marketing positions) I like to see a candidates ‘digital footprint’  so first i look at them on linked in.  I look at their experience and their recommendations.  I then look at their twitter presence to see what they are tweeting about and how others interact with them.  I love the idea of being able to see how deep a person’s knowledge is, or how good their communication skills by seeing their activity on Quora.  Science and health care consist of some very complex ideas – in marketing these products I would like to see how succinctly a candidate can explain these concepts to the non technical individual
I’m pretty sure that as the user base increases, so will the applications of Quora, but today, Quora is a platform
  • To learn from thought leaders
  • To teach by contributing your knowledge in your area of expertise
  • To discuss with other industry leaders
  • To network through showcasing knowledge rather than by introduction

In health care and the life sciences today the utility of Quora is limited today by lack of adoption – so go and spread the word and let’s make this a ‘go to’ knowledge networking site for all of us in these industries.

If you have more ideas about how we can use Quora in the life sciences and health care – feel free to add them – I would love to hear about them.

Ruby Gadelrab’s answer to Does 23andMe include pharmacogenetic screening?

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Yes they do report on drug response of about 18 different traits including Warfarin sensitivity, Clopidogrel (Plavix) efficacy, alcohol consumption, caffeine metabolism, response to statins and interferon beta therapy, just to name a few.  This is particularly useful information because some of these traits do have significant clinical utility and can influence the course of treatment.  In my opinion, pharmacogenomic information is the most useful part of the 23and me report at the moment partly because its clinically actionable and partly because physicians are likely to see the value of it before they see the value of the predictive  and diagnostic disease traits.

Does 23andMe include pharmacogenetic screening?

Ruby Gadelrab’s answer to Has anybody shared their 23andme results with their physician?

I have tried to this several times and got the following reactions

  • Completely blank stare as if i suddenly started speaking to them in Arabic
  • Disapproving head shake as if i was crazy to have even taken such a test.
  • Denial that the test holds any value whatsoever.

On the occasions that I tried to share with the physicians, i tried to show them the most clinically useful information which is pharmacogenomics data.  None of them even knew that there was a test that could help predict Warfarin (Coumadin) dosing…..

Lack of physician education on genomics will hold us back significantly from utilizing the genomic information with clinical utility as standard of care.

Has anybody shared their 23andme results with their physician?

Why Life Sciences Companies Must Embrace Social Media Now

The world has changed.  The way we communicate with each other has changed and the tools we communicate with have changed.

This change has happened so quickly, mainly over the last five years.  The speed of the change has meant that many life science companies have been slow to recognize and embrace the new media and are getting left behind.

Social media can no longer be ignored; Facebook has over 500 million users globally and has surpassed Google in the amount of time per day spent on the site.  Twitter has over 200 million users who sent a staggering 25 Billion tweets in the past 12 months.  You tube has over 24 hours of video uploaded per minute and exceeds 2Billion views per day!!  Those are just three examples but there are many many more.

Social media is here to stay and its time we, in the life sciences started doing things differently. A paradigm shift is underway in the way we communicate with our customers.  In today’s age, everyone is a publisher causing an explosion to the amount of content on internet what does this mean for the life sciences industry?

  • Conversations about your company are already happening.  Your customers, your competitors, your investors and your employees past, present and future are already talking about you online, conversations are already happening with or without you. The question is – do you want to be involved and engaged in those conversations? Do you want to be able to listen to your customer’s views and react to them? Do you want to see what other companies and colleagues in the industry are saying? Do you want to see what your investors are betting on you?
  • Current methods of communicating with your customer are expensive and intrusive. Gone are the days where marketing is an intrusive process of interrupting your customers experience with an advertisement in a journal or flooding their inboxes with your email   campaigns.   As a marketer in a leading genomics company I can tell you the holy grail of marketing is getting the right message to the right customer at the right time.   In Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical marketing today, finding and engaging your target customer is costly and inefficient with a relatively low ROI.   How do we do this today?  Many companies in the life sciences still spend the majority of their marketing dollars on print advertising in journals.  The hope is that their target customer will pick up the journal, will actually pay attention to the advert and then what ?– will pick up the phone and call you?  How often does that happen?   How about buying targeted lists? Doing literature searches for names? Keeping an up to date CRM with your current contacts? Email campaigns? Most email blasts are seen as Spam and go to junk or spam folders.  (In Europe you aren’t even legally allowed to send email blasts without your customer having opted in first) Most of your email blasts are never actually seen by your target audience.  Typically you get a 3% click through rate if you are really lucky, have a good call to action, have said something groundbreaking or are offering something of high value to your customer.  You can see where I am going with this; the current methods of engaging and qualifying your customers are inefficient, expensive and highly intrusive to your customer.
  • Biotech Marketing 2.0 Is about having conversations and listening to your customers Now imagine if you could talk to an audience of your target customers who have voluntarily chosen to listen to you.  What if they recommended you to their friends and colleagues and told them to listen to you too to help propagate your message?  What if they answered all the questions you ever asked them and gave you honest feedback on your product or service?  How about if they could tell you in real time what user requirements are most important to them in your future products?  What if they could tell you about novel ways that they are using your product that could open up new markets for you?  What if they published a paper using your technology and had a quick, easy and cheap way to tell the world about how great your technology is?  What if your customers could do the marketing for you – there is no stronger endorsement than a recommendation by a friend or colleague.  What if you could see what is being said, not only about your company but also about all your competitors simultaneously?  What if all of the above could be done using free web based tools?  You may think this is Utopian and too good to be true, but it’s real and it’s here and its social media that makes it possible.

The Good News

  • If your audience is anyone in the scientific field you can guarantee that they are spending at least 50% of their working life in front of a PC.  This means that they are already spending significant time online and are probably engaged in consuming some kind of social media.  (How many people do you know that have never viewed a You Tube video or even don’t have a Facebook account? Case in point!)  This means that they are already using the tools which are available to you.
  • Currently social media tools are FREE – which means in times when budgets are limited and ROI is more critical than ever – changing the way you communicate with your customers may actually save you money.  Of course there will be costs, and resources required but it will be significantly lower than the costly traditional methods and if done correctly the ROI will be much higher.
  • Using Social and electronic media means that you can have a ‘call to action’ which is immediate – ie click on a link, fill in a form, or go to a web page – the time it will take for your customer to react to your message is reduced from days to minutes. It also means that you can monitor their responses in real time
  • If you use Facebook or Twitter – your customers opt to ‘like’ or ‘follow’ you – this means they are a captive audience, ready and willing to participate in the conversation you want to have with them.  For the first time have an open dialogue with your customer without costly focus groups.
  • Social Media gives us the opportunity to really listen to our customers, understand what it important to them and react quickly.  This is particularly important if a customer is unhappy with any aspect of your product or service. The measure of a good company is how and how quickly they react to a customer with an issue.
  • Science is by nature both collaborative and competitive – social media enables scientists to find collaborators interested in the same field as them, hear conversations on their niche expertise and also be on the lookout for competitive intelligence
  • It’s not too late – while social media has become a part of our lives – this method of communication will continue to grow and develop further.  The life sciences industry, conservative in nature has been slow to embrace it – however it’s never too late to start.

Know Thy Genome, Know Thyself – Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative

During the summer of 2009, I came across a fascinating Genetic Study that I decided to participate in Part 1 of this blog will describe the study and some of its features I particularly liked.  In Part 2, I will share some of my personal experiences in participating in the study.

The Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative (CPMC) is a research study with a goal of understanding if personalized genetic information can be used to improve health outcomes.

Participants are asked to contribute a Saliva Sample (by spitting a lot in a plastic tube) which is then screened for genetic variants, which can be attributable to common diseases and predict responses to certain medications.

The participants are also asked to complete an online profile of themselves in which they are asked a series of questions on their lifestyle, family history, current health and medications used.  This information in combination with the test is used to generate a personalized genetic report which is viewable by the participant online, once the results are available.  That’s it – it’s free and it’s really simple.

I wanted to highlight a few of the features of the study that I particularly liked

  • The complex diseases/that are reported on are certain types of cancers, diabetes, heart disease and other multi-factorial conditions.  The key thing that they have in common is that the risk of developing them can all be reduced by changes in behavior , lifestyle or medical management– only conditions which are potentially “actionable’ are reported.
  • Apart from multi-factorial conditions, samples are also screened for genetic variants which can influence how individuals metabolize certain prescription drugs, something that’s definitely useful to know when making treatment decisions.
  • One of my favorite things about the CPMC is the lengths they go to ensure that each participant has the opportunity for a great education in genetics, with up to date easily digestible information. The website gives the user a crash course in Genetics 101, the principles of heredity and a discussion on how genomics knowledge may be useful in making medical decisions.  The sections of the website dedicated to genetic education are excellent at dispelling a number of myths that the public believe about genetics and genomics.  One example is the distinctions made between sporadic cancers, familial cancers and hereditary ones.  When we say “cancer is genetic” many equate that only with hereditary genetics and may have fatalistic misconceptions when learning that they have inherited a ‘cancer gene.’ The explanations are simple, using accessible language and diagrams.
  • Once the results are made available on the website (approx 6 weeks after sample submission) participants are notified by email and then they have several choices.
    • To learn about the condition and what the risks actually mean.
    • To view  the results with a very easy to understand interpretation of what they mean
    • The choice NOT to view each or any of the individual results
    • To get genetic counseling, in person or over the phone before or after viewing the results.  This is a very key part of the study that I believe, differentiates it from some of the commercial ‘Direct to consumer’(DTC) genetic testing companies. It’s particularly important when you consider the ‘fear factor’ that the public currently have with respect to genetic information, particularly when we are talking about complex conditions and disease..
  • The study is ongoing over many years.  Genetic research is constant and every day new genes, are discovered and associated with different diseases.  As this happens this information will be made available to the participants provided they are ‘actionable’ and the participants continue to annually update their online medical and lifestyle profile.   I believe that this continuous engagement of the participants will also play a major role in improving the scientific literacy of the individuals with regards to personalized genomics.
  • Participants have the option to release their anonymous data to non profit or not for profit organizations to use as part of their studies into genetic disease.  Another  great feature of the study,  not only can participants gain more knowledge of their own genomes, but they can also make an active contribution to genetic and disease research which will ultimately benefit future generations.
  • The collaborative nature of this study is again a key differentiator from other commercial DTC entities.  This study brings together thought leading scientific researchers, genetic counselors, IT specialists, hospitals, clinicians, members of the public and many more groups who will all play a key role in advancing personalized genomics initiatives.
  • The ‘online ‘nature of the whole process is a view to the future of what Medicine 2.0 could look like.  A web based interface that enables patients to learn about medical conditions in general, get test results back electronically, learn specifics about their conditions and how to manage them, create and follow treatment plans, interact with their medical practitioners and schedule appointments for treatments without ever leaving their homes.

Once I heard about the CPMC and researched it a little, it didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to participate. In Future posts I will share with you my 23andme experience as well as some of my results.

I would love to hear from others who decided to take a Personalized Genomics/Medicine test.

For further details on the study please visit