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Why Today's Biomedical Revolution is The 'Sputnik Moment 2.0'

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This year's fifth annual Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards (April 25, New York City) will present LabTV chairman Jay Walker with the Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing "those whose impact have broken the mold to create significant impact." LabTV is an innovative web-based video platform designed to inspire today's students to become tomorrow's heroes of medical research.

On October 4th, 1957, America was electrified -- and also terrified -- when the USSR launched the first man-made satellite into orbit around Earth. The Russians called it Sputnik.

Sputnik was an aluminum-alloy sphere, 23" in diameter, with four whip-like antennas. Inside, a radio transmitter emitted a simple repeating "beep" signal.

Today, Sputnik seems like a pretty innocuous device to trigger a near-panic. But that's exactly what it did. Some U.S. government leaders claimed Sputnik was a direct and immediate threat to American security. Others proclaimed Sputnik meant the USSR had achieved global technological leadership and world-beating prestige.

Not since Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast had the idea of a danger from space caused so much uproar.

We entered emergency mode. U.S. national defense strategy shifted to emphasize space. Congress put America's schoolchildren on crash courses in science and math. Suddenly scientists and engineers became heroes and role models.

This was the "Sputnik Moment."

In retrospect, we know what Sputnik really did was make the future vividly imaginable, motivating the entire nation to adopt a new vision and ambitious goals.

Today the new Sputnik Moment has arrived, but it's not about space. Something even more extraordinary than Sputnik is happening around the world in medical research labs, technology start-ups and government and commercial R&D departments (including 40,000 labs funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health).

This extraordinary, yet little-understood, event is the Biotech Revolution.

Simply put, the "Digital Information Age" is merging with "The Age of Biology." The results of this creative collision are transforming science, industry, culture and lifestyles worldwide. Eventually, we'll even improve on human nature.

Some highlights:

1. Within a few short years, user-friendly bioinformatics on mobile devices -- driven by wearable and ingestible micro-sensors -- will instantly show you how everything you do (or don't do) immediately affects you from your smallest cell to your entire body -- based on real-time, continuous data. You'll also get personal health trend information that no amount of medical testing can provide now. Think Fitbit on steroids.

2. Armed with this data, consumers will step up as equal partners with doctors in their own health regimens. (It's already starting.) Prevention will quickly become the world's largest industry.

3. Synthetic biology -- which means both combining different sections of existing DNA, and (separately) creating brand-new, living genetic code -- will enable us to cure some diseases, mitigate others and "upgrade" human biology.

Cats that glow like jellyfish, now in labs, are just the beginning.

How about reengineering humans to resist the wear and tear of aging? How about printing synthetic but molecularly identical meat so we don't have to grow it? How about integrating computer technology with our brains to boost memory and intellect?

Synthetic biology means humans have our hands on the "software" that controls life. From now on, the appearance of new and different life forms will not be merely the result of random mutation; it will be deliberately planned and chosen by us.

This is the biggest change for life on Earth since evolution began three billion years ago.

Just as Sputnik was brought to America's attention by a global rival, the Biotech Revolution is also highlighted by today's global rival. China's government recently announced significantly increased funding for biomedical research, surpassing U.S. biotech R&D spending.

However, there is no need for panic. The Biotech Revolution offers room for every country and every individual.

What needs to happen now is the same transcendent level of attention and excitement about biotech that we had 56 years ago about space.

Here is the new frontier.

Here is the greatest science adventure of our time -- the quest to "crack the code" of health and disease, to improve the quality and length of life for every human on our planet.

Here is the opportunity to create unimagined new industries and mind-bending new technologies.

Fortune 500 companies have already begun devoting significant resources to biotech. They realize in the 21st century, every company is a healthcare company.

Now the rest of America can become aware of the new Sputnik Moment and get involved -- though education, popular culture and government policy.

This time, the future isn't above us -- it's inside us. But as with Sputnik, the sky's the limit.

In addition to chairing LabTV, Jay Walker is chairman and curator of TEDMED, the health and medicine edition of the famous TED conference. He also happens to own an original Sputnik, one of six backup units that were created by the USSR in 1957. He obtained his Sputnik on eBay.

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