[ExI] Interview with William Haseltine

Max More max at maxmore.com
Fri Apr 3 23:34:19 UTC 2009

The Thought Leader Interview: William Haseltine
By Ann Graham
strategy+business, Spring 2009

My review:
When you hear the terms “biotechnology” and 
“genomics”, you probably think first of medical 
applications. In fact, investment money will flow 
more strongly toward other uses­-such as energy, 
agriculture, and materials science­-according to 
entrepreneur-scientist William Haseltine. 
Haseltine knows whereof he speakers, his claims 
to fame including the founding of Human Genome 
Sciences Inc. (HGSI), one of the first 
biopharmaceutical companies to patent human 
genomic sequences for medical use. He was also a 
part of the team that led the way in uncovering 
the mechanisms by which HIV attacks the human 
immune system; and he coined the term 
regenerative medicine to describe the use of 
natural human substances, such as genes, 
proteins, and stem cells, to regenerate diseased or damaged human tissue.

In this fascinating interview, Haseltine talks 
about carbon-neutral energy farms, microbial 
manufacturing, regenerative medicine, 
pharmaceutical productivity, and benefits of 
biotech for the world’s poor. Synthetic (or 
constructive) biology can accelerate the natural 
processes by which new molecules are constructed, 
allow us to essentially farm energy. By combining 
several biotechnologies, “we could remove carbon 
from the air, turn it into a fuel, use that fuel, 
and return the carbon to the atmosphere so the 
whole process is carbon-neutral with respect to 
the concentration of carbon dioxide in the 
atmosphere.” Recognizing some of the 
possibilities, some oil companies are now calling 
themselves energy companies. Constructive biology 
will also have major implications for the 
materials sector. New manufacturing processes 
will be microbial rather than using standard 
chemical vats. Haseltine also explains the 
connection between nanotechnology and 
biotechnology and the implications for food production.

Haseltine is surprisingly reserved on the 
potential for genetics in predictive medicine. He 
sees genetic inheritance as being “a very minor 
aspect of genomics.” Far more promising is what 
he calls “the ultimate personalization of 
medicine­-using your cells to build new, 
healthier organs.” Regenerative medicine combined 
with material science is also beginning to 
develop and replace organs and tissues.

Turning to the past performance of the 
pharmaceutical industry, Haseltine says “R&D 
expenses in the pharmaceutical industry have gone 
up 20-fold in the last 20 years” even as 
“productivity has decreased by about a factor of 
10.” This makes it “probably the biggest 
productivity collapse the world has ever seen.” 
The problem lies less in the science, which is 
advancing remarkably fast, and more in structural 
problems­-especially the excessive size of the 
companies involved. The marketing people who 
often lead these companies fall prey to what he 
calls the reverse Cinderella syndrome­-taking a 
small foot and putting it into a big shoe. Rather 
than trying to do everything on a huge scale, he 
suggests creating “virtual” pharmaceutical 
company structures, where numerous small 
companies have access to capital and scientists 
who understand the medical needs­a model more like cosmetics.

Links to related articles and topics:

Max More, Ph.D.
Strategic Philosopher
max at maxmore.com 

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