Steve Jobs’s Dying Realization About Biology and Technology

12/5/11Follow @xconomy

Take a guess who made the following statement:

“I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.”

A. Bill Gates

B. Steve Jobs

C. Paul Allen

The comment has gotten little attention in the last few weeks, but it jumped off the page at me toward the end of Walter Isaacson’s revealing new biography of Steve Jobs. The Apple co-founder never had much to say about biology while he was alive, but the opportunities started to dawn on him as he was dying of pancreatic cancer, Isaacson wrote. One of the silver linings of his illness, Jobs said, was how it sparked a passion in his son Reed, a college undergraduate, to learn about genomics at a time that reminded the elder Jobs of personal computing in the 1970s.

While Jobs’s star is burning so brightly in the aftermath of his death, that same statement could easily have been made by tech mogul contemporaries like Gates and Allen. Gates is devoting his fortune to developing technologies that can fight illness in the developing world. Allen has bankrolled an open-source project that enables neuroscientists to access 3-D functional maps of the human and mouse brain. I don’t think it’s an accident that all of these people, so famous for their technology visions, have turned so much of their attention toward biology in recent years.

While much has been made of Jobs’s ill-advised decision to delay surgical removal of his tumor, fewer people seem to have noticed that he had this biotech epiphany toward his end. He had the genome of his tumor completely sequenced, so his doctors at Stanford University could tailor treatments most likely to work against the molecular pathways particularly active in his cancer. Essentially, he flipped all the way from Western medical skeptic to personalized medicine fan in a couple years. It’s a part of the Jobs story that could end up being a significant part of his legacy.

I’m also hopeful that since millions of people are reading this book, it will help rekindle some of the public imagination for biotech.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying let’s bring back irrational exuberance. I’ve written a lot here in these pages this year about the problems biotech is facing—lack of investment, lack of stable business models, lack of jobs, regulatory challenges, overpriced cancer drugs, Big Pharma R&D cuts. It’s all quite depressing. For the most part, the industry is plagued by a crisis of confidence.

This crisis of confidence is the part that puzzles me … Next Page »

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  • Robert Jones

    When it comes to the woes of biotechnology there is only one commencement address that describes how we got here, Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman. Contrast the ending of Feynmans speech.

    “So I have just one wish for you–the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”

    We currently have no shortage of hungry fools. What is missing are honest leaders who create that “somewhere” described by Feynman in his speech.

  • John

    Intersting coincidence that Art Levinson, former CEO of Genentech, replaced Steve Jobs as Chairman of Apple.

  • Saumitra

    Great article Luke, No wonder Jobs had Levinson to be the next Chairman for Apple

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  • http://www.sandersonmcleod.com Paul Sanderson

    Luke- I have not worked with any true innovators that have not been “wonderfully naive”. I think that Larry Page and Sergey Brin fit into this category.

  • http://www.accl-ltd.com Wayne Connors

    Hi Luke, I just hope that Art Levinson can continue the good work Steve Jobs stared and did not have time to complete in his lifetime, just think what Steve could have done if he had lived?