THE BLOG

Hooray for Craig

03/06/2014 04:18 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2014

Craig Venter, the genome pioneer, is now launching a new innovation in gene sequencing that is as exciting as it is hopeful. If Venter's sequencing can help us get to a place where the secrets of our DNA can be revealed to tell healthcare providers how to formulate better treatment plans, then the payoff will be huge. He will unlock the secret to healthier and longer lives with reduced medical spending.

No wonder there's so much enthusiasm for this prospect and this line of medical inquiry. Certainly both the zeal for -- and ongoing headaches with -- Obamacare are evidence that the investment-to-payoff ratio in healthcare is in the red. The UK's ongoing struggle with its own National Health Service shows the problem is not the U.S.'s alone. And in the developing world, where life spans are increasing most dramatically, the wolf is knocking at the door.

Amid the mayhem: Enter genome sequencing.

But for all the high-fiving, grand envisioning and lavish investing in organizations like Google's Calico and Human Longevity -- which is building the world's largest DNA sequencing operation -- one fundamental question remains: What's the agenda? That is, what diseases and conditions will these organizations prioritize?

Granted, half the fun and intrigue of Silicon Valley innovation is the shrouded secrecy in which their innovations occur, making for walloping, headline-grabbing surprises. But medicine and health should be treated differently. The entrepreneurs working in genome sequencing should work hand-in-hand with the health, science, and policy experts. Business, government and others can collaborate, across sectors, aisles and countries to ensure that the innovations underway are aimed at the right goals.

For Human Longevity and others in this space, there is a global conversation for them to join.

In 2011, the United Nations began advocating for a global fight against age-related non-communicable diseases, like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Given the aging of the population in all corners of the world, the UN rightly noted that the prospects of economic development hinged upon healthier paths of aging.

The UN was soon joined by others. Multi-governmental organizations like APEC, the OECD and G8 have made similar strides. The G8's recent outspokenness about creating a global "fight-back" against Alzheimer's was especially powerful. Business heads, policy makers, and thought leaders around the world are listening, and the intricate, inescapable connections between aging, health, and economic growth are being more fully recognized.

This is good news for genome innovators. They are positioning themselves at the cutting-edge of science, politics, economics, and entrepreneurship. So far, it seems that they've got the "magic formula" to break the health/aging/spending conundrum that engulfing economies around the world.

But they should proceed deliberately: We can't afford another flop like Google Health. Grand expectations are not good enough.

What can genome entrepreneurs do to ensure that the revolution they are envisioning can become reality?

Get public policy right. "Big pharma" can attest to the critical importance of this. If the external environment is not prepared and receptive to your ideas -- no matter how good or potentially disruptive -- they will fail. Early-stage policy preparation will be essential. Even though there will soon be one billion people over 60 globally and two billion by mid-century, the right arguments still need to be made about the importance of healthy aging. Government decision-makers across the globe and in global institutions still need to be guided to set the policy framework right. What does this look like? It means setting up the right incentives to favor, encourage, and promote innovation; and it means creating strong intellectual property and adequate pricing. It's a tough road to plough, but the payoff is huge.

Create partnerships. There is a new world of stakeholders in the health arena, and there remain too few leaders and conveners. More than ever, health discussions are shaped by businesses, caregivers, think tanks, financial institutions, universities and more. These groundbreaking sequencing companies can be part of the solution. One model to follow comes from the movement against HIV/AIDS. But there are scant examples either before or after. Peter Piot, leader of the HIV/AIDS solution in the '80s and '90s, made the point recently that the global community needed to reconstruct the partnership for Alzheimer's.

Set the right priorities. As previously discussed, the aging of the global population is ushering in an entirely new set of health challenges. Age-related non-communicable diseases are a double-edged sword: not only do they cost untold sums to treat, but they pull otherwise capable adults from contributing to social and economic life. For all countries around the world, the key to sustainable economic growth in the 21st century is a healthy, active, productive aging population. How can sequencing companies beat the most costly diseases? And how can they promote healthier vision and skin, and decrease muscle-mass deterioration?

If genetic entrepreneurs can do these things right, then believe the hype. But as we have seen in medicine and healthcare, a big idea is a big flop unless the right preparatory steps are taken.

So let's applaud Venter's latest ambition -- the rest of us can help create and enable the policy and market environment that gives him a shot at winning.