Sovereignty used to mean having supreme power or authority over a territory, such as a government. Today, technology sovereignty is changing this traditional concept. Sovereignty is no longer mainly associated with geography and military might because controlling technology is becoming more important for countries.
By being in control of critical tech, countries can produce and nurture local unicorns in synthetic biology and other industries. Helping these companies grow boosts the economy and creates more opportunities for everyone.
Controlling Critical Technologyhe COVID-19 pandemic revealed what happens when a country does not have access to technology or the manufacturing abilities to produce necessary supplies. From mask shortages to importing problems, many nations realized that they no longer had complete technology sovereignty.
Some technologies are so critical for running a country’s economy and government that we must ask three important questions:
- Do we control the critical technology in our own country?
- Do we have access to the technology from multiple independent countries?
- Do we have long-term, guaranteed, unfettered and secure access to the technology from a monopoly or oligopoly supplier from a single country?
“If the answer to the above three questions is no, you have to make changes,” says serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, and vice-chair of the European Innovation Council, Hermann Hauser. “There is a danger of becoming a new vassal state to these tech giants. It’s the danger of a new kind of colonialism, which is not enforced by military might but by economic dependence.”
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Although critical technology includes items such as microprocessors and semiconductors, products necessary for biology research are also becoming more important. This includes gene sequencing, biosensors, and medical tech.
“Even if you know how to produce something, not having the manufacturing capability will stop you so that you can’t control critical technology,” says Hauser.
Technology Sovereignty in Europe Technology sovereignty is a critical issue for Europe, according to Hauser. Without it, countries are vulnerable to technological coercion and dependence on others that can become dangerous.
“Europe actually doesn’t have a startup problem. We produce more startups than the U.S.,” says Hauser. “It’s not a startup problem, but we have a scale-up problem. What the U.S. does so successfully, and China does as well, is provide financial aid for a company that looks promising.”
The U.S. and China have venture capital communities and government support that can give $50 to $100 million to early-stage companies and help them scale rapidly. Europe does not have the financial infrastructure that enables them to take these bigger risks and write large checks. Europe only has about one-fifth of the venture capital available compared to the U.S.
However, the European Innovation Council (EIC), where Hauser is vice-chair, is trying to change the startup culture. The EIC has a budget of over €10 billion for 2021through 2027 to help develop and support innovation in Europe. This makes the EIC the biggest tech investor in Europe, with key focus areas in biology, healthcare, and green technology.
“Most of the money still has to come from the market, so the venture capital community in Europe can remain strong, and the EIC can turbocharge it. But we can do deals like giving €15 million as long as at least another €15 million comes from the market, and we can sweeten the deal with €2.5 million in grants,” says Hauser.
The Role of Synthetic Biology in Biotech SovereigntyBiotech sovereignty is becoming a greater concern as synthetic biology grows. We are already starting to see issues, especially in genetic sequencing. For example, the Nagoya Protocol added to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity attempted to address access to genetic resources and their fair sharing. It mentions that a state has sovereign rights over its natural resources and the genetic sequences of all life in its territory.
“If synthetic biology finally leads to therapies that are personalized for individuals, then the ability to manufacture them locally will become important,” says Hauser.
One of the major global shifts that involves synthetic biology is the fundamental change happening in healthcare as it moves toward keeping people healthy instead of treating them only when they are ill. Being able to produce fast, personalized medicine for each individual requires biotech sovereignty on a local level.
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Thank you to Lana Bandoim for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.