While 3-D printing is often hyped by the media -- sometimes for good reason -- I don't think it's the most far-reaching, game-changing technology out there. There is significant potential for additive manufacturing to disrupt the world's current manufacturing processes, especially considering that polymers, metals, plasters, and other materials can be used in 3-D printers, but can it really replace traditional manufacturing anytime soon? I have my doubts, and Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK) Chief Technology Officer Jeff Kowalski seems to agree. That could be great news for companies such as Organovo (NYSEMKT:ONVO), but it doesn't necessarily have to be bad news for 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD).
In an interview earlier this year with the India Times, Kowalski was asked what innovations excited him the most. The software company CTO's answer:
I have a lot of choices, but if I had to pick one that I think is really provocative -- and it's in the really early stages -- I have to say that it is design for synthetic biology. And I think so because it touches everything. It has the potential for changing everything from agriculture to medicine. It is literally reprogramming cells to do fundamentally different things in the way they were naturally created.
That probably shocks some people who would have gone all-in betting 3-D printing would be his answer, but Kowalski was fond of synthetic biology well before that interview. Investors can thank the great visionary Andrew Hessel, now a distinguished researcher at Autodesk, for infecting Kowalski just over two years ago and for keeping the momentum rolling since with Autodesk's Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group. What makes designing with biology so powerful, and its potential so limitless? Why might investors want to focus more on synthetic biology than 3-D printing for long-term growth at Autodesk? Allow one very biased author to explain.
3-D printing vs. synthetic biology
Autodesk software for 3-D printing applications certainly represents a major growth area for the company. While not all goods can be produced with additive manufacturing, the opportunity is massive: 3D Systems didn't grow revenue 221% from 2010 to 2013 by mistake or chance. Manufacturing represents roughly $1.6 trillion, or 12%, of American gross domestic product. By comparison, the bioeconomy (biotech crops, biopharmaceuticals, and industrial biotech) represented an estimated $350 billion, or 2.5%, of American GDP in 2012. So why is Autodesk more excited about designing with biology than 3-D printing?
In terms of markets that can be disrupted, synthetic biology has a far greater reach than additive manufacturing. Whether it's agriculture or novel biopesticides, specialty or commodity chemicals, fuels or animal feed, spider silk or algal oils, flavors (traditionally produced from petrochemicals) or fragrances (sourced from unsustainable agricultural practices), or numerous others areas, synthetic biology could have an answer.
You also have to consider not just the markets that can be disrupted, but the markets that can only be created and enabled through more efficient biology. Imagine doubling the efficiency of photosynthesis in agricultural crops, curing the most devastating diseases by creating novel pharmaceuticals from new life forms that could never exist on Earth, or having the ability to grow fully functional human organs for transplantation, as Organovo seeks to do. That's why the broader opportunities presented by synthetic biology have greater potential than anything 3D Systems or 3-D printing have to offer.
However, a drastically improved understanding of biology will be necessary before we can characterize it with lines of software and begin designing with it. That's where Autodesk comes in. Take, for instance, the company's Project Cyborg, which is being developed to become the world's leading platform for designing with biology. There's a long road ahead, but one day engineers will design microbes in much the same way airplanes are designed today. Before the first aircraft prototype gets built, we can be pretty confident that it will fly. We're not that confident with biology just yet, but we have to start somewhere. That somewhere might just be Autodesk's building on the San Francisco Bay.
Foolish final words
If they weren't before, the wheels should be turning for Autodesk investors now. If nothing else, investors should at least be pleased to know they were overlooking the most important long-term growth catalyst at the company. It's not that 3-D printing doesn't offer a great opportunity -- it surely does -- it's that designing with biology has so many potential game-changing applications in its future. Could you imagine how different the world would be if we could grow organs for transplantation? Or if we could double the efficiency of photosynthesis? Or if we could engineer ourselves to be immune from every pathogen on Earth (chiral humans)? It may sound like science fiction, but those are all very plausible with synthetic biology -- and Autodesk could seed the disruption.
Don't overlook this, either
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Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio, CAPS page, previous writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for SynBioBeta to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry.
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