Vladan Martinovic, Consultant

At the turn of the century scientists identified a novel microbial adaptive immune system called CRISPR/Cas.

In simple terms, this is a biological mechanism that bacteria use to defend against viruses and other biological entities that may harm them. While the discovery was initially a topic of many conversations in a niche scientific circle, it wasn’t until 2012 that the wider scientific community got very excited. That year, multiple research groups demonstrated that the CRISPR/Cas system can be engineered in a tool that extends to other organisms and cell types, acting as ‘molecular scissors’ to target specific genes. This new technology means we are one step closer to the development of therapeutics for many diseases with inefficient or non-existent cures, as well as techniques for modifying crops to address food shortage issues across the globe.

The human application is closer than one might think.

In June, the first cancer trial using CRISPR technology (in which scientists would engineer a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer) won approval from the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, a panel that has traditionally vetted the safety and ethics of gene therapy trials. The huge potential of CRISPR is widely recognised, and four key players in the biotech world are racing to develop functional therapeutics harnessing CRISPR technology: Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics, CRISPR Therapeutics and Fulcrum Therapeutics. The CRISPR race is supported by a significant influx of investment, with the above-mentioned companies being supported with major pharmaceutical companies (Novartis, Bayer, AstraZeneca etc) and venture capital firms (Third Rock Ventures, Fidelity etc), raising millions of dollars in investment.

In a highly specialised field like this, it’s difficult to tell these competitors apart.

What gives one an edge on the others? Where should the big pharma and VC firms direct their investment? At a first look, all four competitors share a similar mission of bringing novel therapeutic to patients in need. But is there an opportunity for the winning brand to stand for something bigger?

Outside of the scientific and business community, gene-editing technology has generated a lot of interest amongst the general public. Ethical questions have dominated the conversation. Will this technology lead to widespread genetic engineering in humans as depicted in many dystopian science fiction films?

This more holistic view – a philosophy at the core of their business – should provide internal guidance when it comes to balancing the innovation and its implications. This philosophy can instruct their innovation strategy, ensure they are recruiting the right type of people and selecting appropriate commercial partners.

Brands playing in this space should think beyond functional innovation and develop a strong point of view on the wider ramifications of the technology they’re developing.

Consider Synaptics, a technology company that has captured 46% average sales growth in the past 3 years. According to their Q1 report in 2006 when they went public, they described themselves as “a leading developer of interface solutions for the mobile computing, communications, and entertainment industries” Fast forward to 2016 and Synaptic is “Refining the relationship between people and intelligent devices” and “the pioneer and leader of the human interface revolution, bringing innovative and intuitive user experiences to intelligent devices.” Synaptics has become more than an interface solutions provider. It is inspiring the revolution in how we interact with machines and leading the conversation in the space.

The question on our minds now is this:

Will the champion of CRISPR race be the brand that leads conversation beyond the product itself and drives the development of this revolutionary new technology in a responsible manner? We believe so.