- Transforming our economy will require new technologies, breakthrough innovation and sustainable business models.
- Synthetic biology, cell manufacturing, gene editing, artificial intelligence, and microbe engineering may change how patients are treated and food is being produced.
- Discussions about the value of innovation must include an honest exchange about ways to ensure the responsible use of new technologies.
2020 must be considered as a global turning point: the year when a lethal virus shook the global community. Within weeks, the pandemic severely affected our private and professional realities. Hundreds of thousands died. Millions lost their jobs. Entire industries slowed down dramatically. These fundamental changes to public life offer us unprecedented insights into our economy and its impact on our climate.
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There is a broad consensus that the way we live and manage our economy is not sustainable. We face an urgent call to action. A large share of that responsibility lies with industrial companies like Bayer because, with our size and strength, we are capable of making a difference.
While this was true way before COVID-19, the pandemic has demonstrated how fundamentally we need to change. Despite the massive restrictions of this year – from the postponed Olympics to the virtual UN General Assembly – the International Energy Agency expects global CO2 emissions to drop by only 8% from 2019. In other words: large parts of the global economy were severely decelerated and our carbon emissions still remain more than 90% of what they were last year.
My takeaway is that behaviour changes – like consuming and travelling less – is certainly important, but not enough by far. In light of this pandemic, we can clearly see that we need to think bigger to succeed with the transformation to a sustainable economy. We need new technologies, breakthrough innovation and sustainable business models.
How we think big
Inside the world’s labs, there is a technological revolution looming in the life sciences. Technologies such as synthetic biology, cell manufacturing, gene editing, artificial intelligence, microbe engineering, and others may change how patients are treated and food is produced.
Five years ago, Bayer decided to set up a separate unit, called “Leaps by Bayer”, solely focusing on breakthrough innovation with the potential to address some of humanity’s biggest challenges. We began with the vision to invest in disruptive technologies that could shift key paradigms in our core business. In health, this means moving from treating, to curing and preventing diseases. In agriculture, it’s about moving from producing more, to better and more sustainable food.
We set out to address 10 huge challenges, such as curing genetic diseases or developing a sustainable protein supply. Each leap is outstandingly ambitious with the potential to impact millions of lives. In its operating model, Leaps stands for fostering access to cutting-edge technologies by collaborating with biotech start-ups. We have created or invested in more than 30 companies to date. In many cases, we provided not only capital, but access to Bayer resources, expertise and IP.
Each of the ventures in the Leaps portfolio is focused on new technologies that have been identified to best address the challenges. Gene editing, cell therapy, germplasm for vertical farming are only some of the technologies that Leaps has created companies around.
Sustainable organ replacement
One example for gene editing’s huge promise is in organ replacement. Worldwide, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people are on organ transplant waiting lists. Only three in 1,000 people die in a way that their organs can be donated.
Kidney failure is one of the main drivers of organ transplant need, with nearly half a million Americans currently on dialysis. What if this diagnosis meant scheduling a prompt transplant operation, with low risks of organ rejection, and skipping dialysis entirely?
Technologies being developed by the Leaps company eGenesis – like growing broadly compatible human organs using genetically modified pigs – could end the global organ shortage, ensuring that patients everywhere have almost immediate access to life-saving transplants.
The environmental impact of agriculture
Modern agriculture is essential to feed the growing population of around 10 billion by 2050. On the flipside, agriculture is resource intensive, accounting for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of global freshwater withdrawals.
What if we could grow crops with significantly reduced farming inputs at reasonable costs? If the Leaps company JoynBio is successful in engineering the soil microbiome so that plants like corn could fixate nitrogen from the air, we could dramatically reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizer and the 3% of global greenhouse gases it generates today.
Around a century ago, the Haber-Bosch process revolutionized farming by allowing people to mass-produce nitrogen fertilizer. In our time, Leaps is working on the next revolution.
What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?
Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.
Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.
With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.
The societal value of innovation
Leaps by Bayer is our way of thinking big. I believe what we have learned can help restart a discussion about the value of new technologies in reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and transforming to a decarbonized economy. In my view, three points can help us harness these technological promises:
1. An honest discussion about risk-taking: "Who dares, wins" is an old saying, but it’s also the mindset we need. I’m well aware that, especially in Europe, we are dealing with scepticism towards technological solutions. As societal acceptance is key, we should all engage in discussions about the value of innovation. This must include an honest exchange about cultural differences, the right regulatory framework and ways to ensure the responsible use of new technologies.
2. Companies and investors need to align their business models: In recent years, the binding force of the planetary boundaries has become scientifically obvious and the markets are reacting accordingly. At Bayer, we have aligned our business strategy with the SDGs. As a company – and Leaps is a wonderful expression of that – we thrive for what we believe is the ultimate goal of how to run a business: sustainable solutions and financial returns at the same time.
3. Nobody can do it alone: Our Leaps approach proves this rather general point. It’s also a lesson that will remain from 2020. Dealing with the global health crisis and the scientific race to stop COVID-19 has encouraged unprecedented collaboration. Let’s use this momentum for the greater good.