There is something deceptive about many metrics in biotechnology. Everyone’s favorite little graph is the plot of DNA synthesis and DNA sequencing costs dropping faster than Moore’s law, which to everyone is source of great excitement! How things have improved! However, those advancements are both unevenly distributed and may be partially explained by alternative statistics.
For example, let’s consider if we wanted to measure if the average productivity has increased of a bioengineer has increased. We also notice that there is a great increase of DNA synthesis. Does this mean the productivity of bioengineers has increased? There are a couple of other possibilities: perhaps there are more bioengineers (so overall increases aren’t increasing average productivity) or perhaps DNA data storage applications have taken much of the DNA synthesis market.
The big question is: what are some better metrics we should measuring? I’m not sure, but here are a few I think we could start with.
What is the average, median, and standard deviation of the plasmids produced per bioengineer per year? If we are really getting better at bioengineering, I would expect more plasmids to be produced each year by each and every bioengineer. I have a (unfounded) suspicion that the standard deviation has increased over the last 5 years, while the median has remained static.
How many plasmids have to be created to produce a given product? This metric is a little fuzzy, but it is trying to measure how much better we’ve become at synthetic biology and predicting biological function. Let’s say it takes 100 plasmids to figure out how to produce enough of product X to be viable for Y. However, over the years, instead of producing 100 intelligently designed plasmids, we started producing 1,000 plasmids in a big library to find just 1 that produces enough of product X to be viable for Y. While in pure economic terms this could be a good thing, it shows that we’re not increasing our ability to intelligently design life.
I suspect that we’ve gotten better at producing plasmids but have not gotten better at producing plasmids per project. This suspicion comes from my observation of a decreasing emphasis on standard biological parts within synthetic biology.
How much does it cost (time and money) for a biotechnology company to get a product to market? In software, this cost is essentially just time (since most folks who can software engineer already have computers). In biotechnology, it will likely cost more than just the founder’s time. How much more will it cost? How long does it usually take to get to market? This metric is probably interesting to investors, but to me, it is interesting because I want to see this cost go down. Making it go down represents real value and increases equal access to the opportunity to make beautiful things with biology.
DNA synthesis and DNA sequencing are a great proxy for our increasing capabilities, but there is more than just that. Gathering and sharing this data is essential to make informed decisions about what needs to happen on a strategic level. I will be trying to collect some of these statistics, and I’d encourage anyone reading this to do the same!
 When I spoke to Richard Fuisz this was his idea of a better metric and I totally agree.