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The Lifecycle of a Breakthrough

2022 February 13
by Greg Satell

Many experts suspect that the Covid crisis is finally beginning to recede. It is, of course, hard to know for sure. There will continue to be debate and we will still need to have measures in place for some time now. Still, for the most part, people are back at work, kids are in school, and relatively normal routines have returned.

Generations from now, historians will most likely still question what lessons are to be gleaned from the past few years. Should we strengthen our multilateral institutions or have they become so sclerotic that they need to be dismantled? Is the rise of populist nationalism a harbinger for the future or a flash in the pan?

One thing I don’t expect to be hotly debated, in fact seems perfectly clear even now, is that science saved us. Untold thousands, working mostly anonymously in labs around the world, created a vaccine of astonishing efficacy in record time. It is these types of breakthroughs that change the course of history and, if we can embrace their power, lead us to a better future.

A Seemingly Useless Idea

The MRNA technology that led to the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have the potential to revolutionize medical science. It can rapidly reprogram the machinery in our cells to manufacture things that can potentially cure or prevent a wide range of diseases, from cancer to malaria, vastly more efficiently than anything we’ve ever seen before.

Yet while revolutionary, it is not at all a new idea. In fact Katalin Karikó, who pioneered the approach, published her first paper on mRNA-based therapy way back in 1990. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to win grants to fund her work and, by 1995, things came to a head. She was told that she could either direct her energies in a different way, or be demoted.

This type of thing is not unusual. Jim Allison, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on cancer immunotherapy, had a very similar experience when he had his breakthrough, despite having already become a prominent leader in the field. “It was depressing,” he told me. “I knew this discovery could make a difference, but nobody wanted to invest in it.”

The truth is that the next big thing always starts out looking like nothing at all. Things that really change the world always arrive out of context for the simple reason that the world hasn’t changed yet.

Overcoming Resistance

Humans tend to see things in a linear fashion. It is easier for us to imagine a clear line of cause and effect, like a row of dominoes falling into each other, rather than a series of complex interactions and feedback loops. So it shouldn’t be surprising that, in hindsight, breakthrough ideas seem so obvious that only the most dim-witted would deny their utility.

When we think of something like, say, electricity, we often just assume that it was immediately adopted and the world simply changed overnight. After all, who could deny the superiority of an efficient electric motor over a big, noisy steam engine? Yet as the economist Paul David explained in a famous paper, it took 40 years for it to really take hold.

There are a few reasons why this is the case. The first is switching costs. A new technology almost always has to replace something that already does the job. Another problem involves establishing a learning curve. People need to figure out how to unlock the potential of the new technology. To bring about any significant change you first have to overcome resistance.

With electricity, the transition happened slowly. It wouldn’t have made sense to immediately tear down steam-powered factories and replace them. At first, only new plants used the electricity. Yet it wasn’t so much the technology itself, but how people learned to use it to reimagine how factories functioned that unlocked a revolution in productivity gains.

In the case of mRNA technology, no one had seen a mRNA vaccine work, so many favored more traditional methods. Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, for example, used a more traditional DNA-based approach using adenoviruses that was much better understood, rather than take a chance on a newer, unproven approach.

We seem to be at a similar point now with mRNA and other technologies, such as CRISPR. They’ve been proven to be viable, but we really don’t understand them well enough yet to unlock their full potential.

Building Out The Ecosystem

When we look back through history, we see a series of inventions. It seems obvious to us that things like the internal combustion engine and electricity would change the world. Still, as late as 1920, roughly 40 years after they were invented, most American’s lives remained unchanged. For practical purposes, the impact of those two breakthroughs were negligible.

What made the difference wasn’t so much the inventions themselves, but the ecosystems that form around them. For internal combustion engines it took a separate networks to supply oil, to build roads, manufacture cars and ships and so on. For electricity, entire industries based on secondary inventions, such as household appliances and radios, needed to form to fully realize the potential of the underlying technology.

Much of what came after could scarcely have been dreamed of.  Who could have seen how transportation would transform retail? Or how communications technologies would revolutionize warfare? Do you really think anybody looked at an IBM mainframe in the 1960s and said, “Gee, this will be a real problem for newspapers some day?”

We can expect something similar to happen with mRNA technology. Once penicillin hit the market in 1946, a “golden age” of antibiotics ensued, resulting in revolutionary new drugs being introduced every year between 1950 and 1970. We’ve seen a similar bonanza in cancer immunotherapies since Jim Allison’s breakthrough.

In marked contrast to Katalin Karikó’s earlier difficulty in winning grants for her work, the floodgates have now opened as pharma companies are now racing to develop mRNA approaches for a myriad of diseases and maladies.

The Paradox Of  New Paradigms

The global activist Srdja Popović once told me that when a revolution is successful, it’s difficult to explain the previous order, because it comes to be seen as unbelievable. Just as it’s hard to imagine a world without electricity, internal combustion or antibiotics today, it will be difficult to explain our lives today to future generations.

In much the same way, we cannot understand the future through linear extrapolation. We can, of course, look at today’s breakthroughs in things like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and quantum computing, but what we don’t see is the second or third order effects, how they will shape societies and how societies will choose to shape them.

Looking at Edison’s lightbulb would tell you nothing about radios, rock music and the counterculture of the 60s, much like taking a ride in Ford’s “Model T” would offer little insight into the suburbs and shopping malls his machine would make possible. Ecosystems are, by definition, chaotic and non-linear.

What is important is that we allow for the unexpected. It was not obvious to anyone that Katalin Karikó could ever get her idea to work, but she shouldn’t have had to risk her career to make a go of it. We’re enormously lucky that she didn’t, as so many others would have, taken an easier path. It is, in the final analysis, that one brave decision that we have to thank for what promises to be brighter days ahead.

All who wander are not lost.

– Greg

Image: Unsplash


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