Impact Spotlight: RNA Micro-factories, the Pandemic, Mars and Moonshot Strategies

Darlene Damm
Jul 16, 2020

For this week’s post, I would like to highlight this article from Reuters sharing how Tesla, Inc and the German company CureVac, are teaming up to build portable automated bio-printers or "RNA micro-factories” that can be shipped to remote locations around the world to churn out vaccines and therapies.I find this work fascinating, and worthy of attention, on multiple levels.First, it means we are shifting from a paradigm of a few large facilities manufacturing vaccines and therapeutics and shipping them around the world, to instead shipping thousands of small machines around the world, programming them, and then printing out therapies anywhere, anytime, on demand.Furthermore, we will likely be able to reprogram these machines or send them different “recipes,” so the same machine can print different therapeutics as needed, customized to different diseases, and perhaps people.Given these machines are technological devices, and are composed of exponential technologies and software, they should follow Moore’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns, rapidly falling in cost and globally scaling, all while growing more sophisticated.Second, I suspect similar machines will not only transform the healthcare industry, but also other fields that are currently being infused with biotechnology.But there’s more.I found this particular article about Tesla interesting, because we are seeing what we might think of as a car, or perhaps, energy, company, joining the healthcare industry. I see this telling of not only Musk’s work in rolling out sophisticated long-term moonshot strategies, but that Tesla is also a space company.Even before the pandemic, Elon Musk and the space industry have been interested in the ability to print biological materials off planet. The SU Company Made in Space was experimenting with some of this technology in 2018 and the Austrian company, Lithoz, sent a bio-fabrication facility to the International Space Station in 2019. If one cannot access therapeutics, or even organs for medical procedures in space, one will have to manufacture them on site. In 2015, Vice published this article explaining how Musk and Craig Venter discussed using bio-printers to not only print medicine and food off planet, but also bacteria and organisms that can help terraform Mars.I believe that Tesla’s RNA micro-factories are a baby step that will not only help with addressing the pandemic, but are part of a larger moonshot strategy to fund and develop these technologies that will be very useful off planet in the future.All of Musk’s other products also follow this moonshot strategy of having a terrestrial market to fund and develop the technology in the here and now, and a long-term goal for a Mars civilization. For example, Tesla’s work in pioneering electric cars, batteries, and charging infrastructure is essential R&D for a planet lacking fossil fuels. Neuralink and autonomous technologies will be necessary for managing the robots and 3D printers that build infrastructure from Earth. Even The Boring Company’s ability to dig tunnels is not only necessary for clearing up traffic jams on earth and building Hyperloop transport systems, but also for digging the tunnels on Mars that humans will no doubt inhabit to protect themselves from radiation and other dangers. The list goes on.All the better when these technologies being developed for a future civilization on Mars also solve real problems in healthcare, renewable clean energy, food and agriculture, infrastructure, and transportation for the billions of people who need them here today on Earth.