Field of Science

Peter Thiel's interesting comparison of biotech with software

From Peter Thiel's "Zero to One" comes a comparison of the biotech and IT industries in which he presents a table contrasting the strategies and pitfalls of biotech vs IT. Thiel has said some odd things about chemistry and biotech before, so I was bracing myself for encountering some naiveté in his book. 

To my surprise the book largely makes for very thought-provoking and generally reasonable reading, even if you may not agree with all of Thiel's contrarian streak. It's rather refreshing to see him point some sharpened accusatory fingers at the current climate of technological optimism which equates things like globalization and Twitter with genuine technological breakthroughs (somewhat disingenuously but understandably he gives Facebook a free pass). Thiel's candidates for those rare soaring successes which truly changed the human condition are the Apollo program and the Manhattan project - while these do fit the description, he seems to ignore the fact that both of them were fueled by two wars and an intense fear of the Nazis and the Soviets, not exactly the kind of alignment of planets that comes around often and on demand. 

However his recommendations for building successful technology-based startups, while easier said than implemented, do seem to have some important ingredients for genuinely groundbreaking developments in the field. And here's his comparison of biotech with tech.

I actually agree with most of the contrast here except for a few things. The biotech approach is indeed 'indefinite and random' but it's not because we scientists actually enjoy throwing balls randomly at the wall - it's mostly because a lot of the 'definite and rational' approaches that we have tried over the last twenty years have worked in fits and starts at best. Biotech and drug discovery are too complex to be left to any one kind of approach so one has to try every possible strategy, from the ultra rational to the completely blind. 

I also resent Thiel's comparison of 'committed entrepreneurial hackers' in software with 'high-salaried, unaligned lab drones' in biotech and find it to be simplistic and smug: it's far easier to be a committed entrepreneurial hacker in IT, precisely because of the reasons cited above in the table - the possibility of success in a well-understood, relatively cheap and artificially engineered system. Similarly it's not like people are actively trying to shy away from the committed hacker model in biotech; it's because all the other factors listed above - heavy regulation, lack of funding and unrealistic, sky-high valuations, the fundamental complexity of biological systems etc. - simply make it harder for one to be so.

Nevertheless as illustrated below, there is a grain of truth in Thiel's diagnosis of many biotech and pharma companies. For some reason the pharmaceutical industry has lost the kind of frontier spirit that once infused it and which is now largely the province of swashbuckling Silicon Valley inhabitants. Whatever the hurdles and naiveté intrinsic to this spirit, it doesn't seem unreasonable to imagine that the industry could benefit from a bit more can-do, put-all-your-chips-on-the-table, entrepreneurial kind of spirit. It's something to ponder.

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