"I recall an old English saying," said Bill Costerton, a world-renowned
scientist at Montana State University-Bozeman, "where there's muck
there's brass," which means that if there is a dirty job to be done,
there is money to be made.
The muckliterally and figuratively, in this caseis biofilm,
a niche within the biotechnology field. It might sound like the slime
of science fiction, but biofilm is present everywhere, created on almost
any surface where bacteria and water exist. So the plaque on your teeth,
the "gunk" in drains and the slime on river rocks are all biofilms.
Find an outbreak of E. coli, the nasty food-borne bacteria, and
you've found biofilm.
Costerton is personally credited with pioneering the field of biofilm,
thanks to research on mountain stream bacteria dating back to the 1970s.
He even coined the term biofilm in 1978. One industry source said of Costerton,
"He is to biofilm what James Brown is to soul."
Costerton and other researchers have discovered that biofilmsbacterial
colonies, reallyare a genetic process or evolution, adapting to
changing environments, turning on certain genes while turning off others
in a bacterial version of Darwinism to live and propagate. Once this was
understood, researchers also found ways to genetically interfere with
the biological development of biofilm, either halting its growth or preventing
bacterial resistance from setting in, which allows for more effective
chemical treatment, like antibiotics for an infection.
The economic potential of this research is hard to both understate and
calculate because it has so many potential applications for such disparate
things as food processing, petroleum recovery, specialty chemicals and
One of its most lucrative markets could be health care. The National Institutes
of Health estimates that 80 percent of infections are caused by biofilms.
Bloodstream and urinary tract infections, for example, are often associated
with biofilm development on so-called indwelling medical devices, like
catheters. A paper in Nature Biotechnology noted that 2 percent
of annual reconstructive surgeries in the United States later develop
infectionsmost caused by biofilmand these surgeries need to
be redone at a cost to patients and insurance companies of up to $900
But in terms of jobs and other immediate economic effects, there's not
a lot of biofilm to run your galoshes through, at least not yet. Costerton
said there are five firms worldwide with a backing of some $200 million
in venture capital trying to hit the big time, none of them in Bozeman.
In the meantime, the field is made up mostly of smaller firms, including
a few in town, building the industry one bacterium at a time.
One of those firms is Bacterin, located just outside Bozeman with about
10 employees. It recently signed on to design and test infection-resistant
coatings for medical devices for a major medical company and is expecting
revenues this year of about $1.5 million. The firm spun out in 1998 from
research conducted at the university's Center for Biofilm Engineeringa
fact that tends to open doors for the firm, according to Bacterin president
"It's like saying you're from Harvard. We wouldn't be here if the
center weren't here," Cook said. "You go to Tokyo and people
know exactly who you are" because of where you're from.
Gooooo biotech, yea!
In many ways, biofilm is a microcosm of the broader biotechnology industry.
Promising breakthroughs and applications abound in biotechnology. Commonly
associated with new drugs and certain crops ("franken-foods"
ring a bell?), biotech has potential applications in many industries and
almost every facet of life.
Stem cell research, for example, promises to revolutionize medicine. In
April of this year, researchers at the University of Minnesota provided
evidence for the first time that stem cells from adult bone marrow can
develop into all major types of cells found in the brain. Meanwhile, in
June, stem cell researchers at the University of Wisconsin announced they
had found the first major evidence of human embryonic stems cells growing
into the three major types of heart tissue, and even managed to videotape
these cells beating in a lab dish.
WiCell Research Institute, a nonprofit in Madison, Wis., established to
advance stem cell research, has five of the 60 or so stem cell colonies
that President Bush has agreed to allow research on, and the firm is one
of few worldwide to sell stem cells to other scientists. That activity
is the direct result of research by University of Wisconsin scientist
James Thomson, who was the first to discover human embryonic stem cells
five years ago.
Biotech is experiencing something of a coming-out party, the result of
a confluence of factors that have dramatically raised the profile and
commercial applicability of biotech in the last decade, and particularly
in the last few years. Biotech's potential has everyone talking, from
researchers to politicians to venture capitalists. People are recognizing
the brass that is biotech.
The ingenuity of biotech is largely held by the wonderment of the cell,
the very core of biology. It's been 50 years since the discovery of the
double-helix structure of DNA, discovered by Francis Crick, James Watson
and Maurice Wilkins, which unlocked the secret that all cells have basic
design and structural similarities. And 30 years have passed since the
development of recombinant DNA technology, or the ability to alter a DNA
molecule"the platform that launched the biotech industry,"
according to a 2003 report on the biotech industry by Ernst & Young.
Research breakthroughs like the Human Genome Project and countless other
projects that have toiled away in labs for years have set the table for
an orgy of both continued basic research and business spinoffs. In each
of the last five years, biotech researchers have averaged more than 7,500
biotech patents, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization
(BIO), more than double the annual average from the previous eight years.
After years of heavy investment, drug companies have brought about 155
biotech medicines and vaccines to the market in the last decade, according
to BIO; about two-thirds have made it to pharmacists' shelves in the last
three years. Already, six biotech drugs have hit the $1 billion mark.
Despite price tags that can zoom past $10,000 for an annual dosage, new
biotech drugs for arthritis and other ailments have seen waiting lists
One marketing brochure on biotech in Minnesota states breathlessly, "Clearly,
we're poised to enter the most exciting technology race of the new century,
and every indicator suggests that the biotech revolution will change the
economy as profoundly in this century as the physical and chemical sciences
did in the last one."
Many happen to agree with that assessment, including Cook of Bacterin.
"I think [biotech] is the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution,"
said Cook, ticking off numerous areas for advancesincluding a cure
for cancerthat will lead to longer and healthier lives. "I
believe the whole thing. We are on the cusp of having the right tools"
to make those things happen, he said, and the next step is to "see
[those tools] transferred into viable companies."
Predictably, states are jockeying to put themselves in position to capitalize
on biotech growth for local and state economies.
Maryann Feldman, a University of Toronto economist who has widely studied
the biotech industry, wrote in a 2002 paper, "Biotechnology has captured
the imagination of ambitious scientific investigators, investors seeking
high rates of return, as well as economic development officials who hope
to anchor the industry within their district and reap the economic and
According to a 2001 study headed by Battelle, a nonprofit research organization,
41 of 50 states had some type of initiative in place to encourage biotech
development. (Montana and the Dakotas were three of the nine states that
Yet despite biotech's status as the next big thing since the hot-coms,
and despite government efforts to build biotech hubs, there's a lot we
don't know about biotech. Indeed, there's generally poor understanding
of even what biotech is and means. From an economic development standpoint,
cities and states looking for the economic big bang from biotech are likely
to be disappointed, particularly if they are impatient. Today, the industry
is but a pipsqueak in economic terms and is not likely to shed that label
for some time because of its underlying dependence on scientific discovery
for new products.
Yer granddaddy's bio
The textbook definition of biotechnology is pretty straightforward: bio,
involving biology or biological processes or traits; and technology,
advancement in process or machine, typically used to increase productivity,
solve problems, and generate social and economic progress.
Examples of this kind of biotech have been around a long time, including
such things as bread, cheese and beer. Hungarian engineer Karl Ereky first
coined the term biotechnology in 1919 to refer to applications of technology
to agricultural processes that could expand the world's food supply. Whether
you realized it or not at the time, you were watching cutting-edge biotech
when Steve Austin (you know, The Six Million Dollar Man) was battling
bad guys with his bionic right arm and telescopic eyes.
But the world has gotten decidedly more complex, and so too has our use
of the word biotech. In a way, the term itself has been co-opted, meaning
many things to different audiences. In the scientific community, biotech
is used almost exclusively to refer to research, products or processes
that involve genetic engineering, or the manipulation of plant or animal
But among lay audiences and wanna-be businesses, biotech is still used
as something of a generic term to denote where biological discovery and
the economy meet. More recently, the term "bioscience" has replaced
biotech as the broader term that covers a large umbrella of biology-based
research and products.
The terminology confusion also stems from the fact that government does
not have a standard industry definition for biotech and, as such, does
not track it. That means the official definition of a biotech company
can be just about whatever you want it to be (see related sidebar).
While that might not seem terribly problematic, it's symptomatic of a
situation where everybody's fighting to get a piece of an industry that
has yet to take shape and still faces significant obstacles to realize
the potential many see in it.
From a cynical point of view, part of the urgency over the development
of the "bio-economy" probably stems from the implosion of the
dot.com and telecom markets, with biotech becoming something of a replacement
therapy for an impatient economy eager for the next big thing, particularly
given the economy's prolonged sputtering.
Biotech got hammered hard, too, when the stock market crashed. Two biotech
stock market indexes have been down over the last two years, while the
number of initial public offerings fell in the proverbial hole, dropping
from almost 70 in 2000 to fewer than 10 in each of the last two years.
But from a broader perspective, the biotech waverippling through
the even larger biosciences poolis potentially bigger and more long
term than anything that came out of the so-called new economy bluster
of the last decade. Revenues, for example, have continued to trend up
despite the slow economy and timid capital markets. From 1989 to 2002,
the industry saw compound annual revenue growth of 16 percent, a trend
that held over the last two years, according to Ernst & Young.
The uniqueness of the biotech industry is the lush intellectual intersection
it occupies, where many scientific disciplines collide in a classic "hey,
your peanut butter's in my chocolate" epiphany. Chemistry, material
science, the environment, mathematics, computer science and still others
offer a gateway to some new biotech discovery.
That means that biotech, rather than being a definable, tangible industry
like semiconductors, is many industries under a loose net, with biosciences
offering an even bigger net. Every discovery, every new product or process
has some tie to biologyto the cells of plants and animals. Biology
is the common denominatorthe sticky peanut butter, if you will.
"Biology will transform industry," said William Hoffman, communications
coordinator of the Biomedical Engineering Institute at the University
of Minnesota and creator of the Minnesota Biomedical and Bioscience Network,
a huge Internet gateway to some 1,250 regional life science and medical
organizations throughout the world. "[Biology] is going to be important
in all spheres of life, not just in building businesses."
What used to be the stuff of science fiction is now the stuff of business
plans. In late February, a DeForest, Wis., firm named Infigen announced
that it had produced a litter of cloned pigsitself a feat of biotech
prowess, but this batch was genetically engineered further to grow organs
for human transplant that were less likely to be rejected. Several industry
sources noted that the real excitement of biotech is the idea that new
industries will develop in the coming decades that are not yet even a
twinkle in a scientist's eye.
Biotech the yuck
It might look bright and shiny, a can't-miss biotech innovation, but
many biotech and bioscience ideas streaming out of labs today still face
numerous obstacles before reaching true commercial viability. Foremost
among them is whether the public is ready.
"Market acceptance is the key question," said Jeffrey Kahn,
director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. Many
factors contribute to consumers' acceptance of new thingsfor biotech
that list includes perceived safety, individual privacy and even "the
yuck factor," according to Kahnand each factor faces some invisible
threshold for acceptance.
For example, genetically modified organisms must address perceived safety
risks at several levels, including personal health (Is it safe for me
or my kids to eat?) and environmental (Will GMOs cross-pollinate and contaminate
nearby crops?). Ethics also play a part, Kahn said, but many issues are
mistaken for ethical dilemmas. For example, the GMO issue is mostly about
food safety, but it's often couched in ethical rhetoric. "Ethics
gets wrapped into other issues."
Different biotech sectors are at different stages of acceptance within
different markets. There is a wide gap, for instance, between GMO acceptance
in the United States and market resistance in Europe. Stem cell research
was seemingly on the fast track in the United States until President Bush
limited research to roughly 60 stem cell colonies, which has reportedly
had a heavy ripple effect in the field.
Biotech the mundane
There are additional market factors to consider as well when plotting
the path of the bio-economy. First, not all scientific discoveries can
be commercially exploited for profit. Biotech applications are notoriously
expensive and time-consuming to take from the lab to the market.
Bill Miller, a partner and life sciences leader at the Ernst & Young
office in Minneapolis, said the development time frame is much longer
for biotech than for most other industries. During the height of the dot.com
market, venture capitalists were looking at returns of fivefold or more
"in a couple of years," Miller said. "That is not possible
in biotech ... [and] people need to have a clearer understanding of that."
Several sources also said that much of the attention paid to biotech and
biosciences is from those seeking the home run, the economic jackpot.
That mentality, combined with the science fictionlike nature of some discoveries,
can distract attention and resources away from practical and more near-term
innovations in biotechwhat Feldman, the Toronto economist, called
"more mundane" applications.
"There's a lot of focus on things that are going to be incredibly
high-tech," Feldman said, almost to the point where "if you
can understand it, it must not be very good."
Costerton, the biofilm expert, said most people think of biotech as the
"whiz-bang" of medical cures and high-science innovation. But
many discoveries have come in low-visibility applications "where,
generally speaking, there's been a quiet acceptance."
For example, Costerton is involved in the development of a new gold extraction
process that mitigates the negative effects of cyanide (which is traditionally
used to separate metals) by introducing cyanide-metabolizing bacteria
to a contaminated source. Such developments don't generate big headlines,
but can nonetheless make a difference for an industry and the environment,
he said. "That kind of project is incremental and foolproof."
What's that? I can't hear it
In a similar vein, states and regions waiting for the "big bang"
of biotech are likely to be disappointed. Besides a long development time
frame, employment is generally small among most biotech firms. A 2003
survey by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development
found that most firms with biotech activities had fewer than 10 employees
and less than $5 million in annual revenue.
As a result, biotech's growth in the economy is more likely to sound like
white noise that you might not even notice, despite the fact that it keeps
getting louder. According to Costerton, the biotech revolution had no
real starting point because different sectors are ramping up at different
paces. But each sector has its own tipping point, he said, where "the
dam's going to burst ... and really take off. But maybe not in your backyard."