HEALTH 2.0 12TH ANNUAL FALL CONFERENCE | SANTA CLARA, CA | SEPT. 16-18, 2018
Earlier this fall Health 2.0 welcomed a very special keynote speaker to our conference: Jane Metcalfe. Jane is the founder of NEO.LIFE, an online publication for all things science, health, and innovation. But you may recognize her name from another platform she is known for: Wired magazine.
Jane along with her partner Louis Rossetto founded Wired in 1993 to cover the digital revolution – a growing suite of products, workflows, and communication portals that surfaced in response to the Internet. When the brand was sold to Conde Nast and Lycos, Jane had no intention of returning to publishing or media. Instead, she invested in chocolate and found herself the caretaker to two parents and a stepparent -- each suffering from various states of cognitive decline. Her challenges as a caretaker were not unique, but her unrelenting quest for knowledge is.
What she learned about food innovation and about the human body and health care innovation during this time spurred an idea she couldn’t ignore. Armed with information on the human genome, CRISPR, GMOs, and the opportunity to eradicate disease via the aforementioned, she noticed that the common thread here was biology. “It’s a biological revolution,” she says. “But it’s not old biology, its new biology. It’s biology driven by technology.” Jane coined the movement the “Neobiological Revolution” and went on to found NEO.LIFE.
For Health 2.0 staffers, the weekly NEO.LIFE newsletter has become required reading and we were thrilled to invite her to Santa Clara to share her particular brand of future-thinking with our audience in September.
Read on for an exclusive interview with Jane Metcalfe. We talk about the genesis of NEO.LIFE, how to inspire kids in STEM subjects, truth telling, and what’s on her bookshelf right now.
Health 2.0: Tell us a little about the genesis of NEO.LIFE? How did this project come about?
Jane Metcalfe: Well, I wish I had a short version of this, but I think the long version is just so interesting. After we sold Wired, I got involved in a lot of activities that have nothing to do with media or technology, such as investing in TCHO Chocolate. When 2008 hit and it looked like the company was at risk I stepped in to become the president and got way more involved than I had ever imagined.
That was exciting because the more I read about the health benefits of chocolate, the more intrigued I became. I was beginning to research whether we could combine chocolate with other superfoods.
It was around that time that my mother, father, and stepfather all experienced cognitive decline. I suddenly was dealing with Alzheimer's and mental illness. I was dealing with HIPAA forms and a lack of legal standing in the case of my stepfather. I was trying to take care of kids and my parents at the same time. I was looking at the Alzheimer's numbers and thinking how ill-equipped our society is to deal with this and the staggering cost of maintaining an Alzheimer's patient over time. So, as I tend to do, I wondered what the leading edge had in store, what technological solutions were coming down the pipe, and who were the innovators.
I went to conferences where the whole genomics revolution started to peak my interest. I’d learned about the microbiome and advance reproductive technologies and CRISPR solutions for food problems. And all of a sudden, I realized there so much happening all over the place, across all of these fields, and it’s all being driven by technology.
The cost of sequencing has fallen off the cliff, the use of cloud computing has made a huge impact on people’s ability to share data. With the amount of data we’re collecting from medical records to sensors, the question is how do we parse all of that data, how do we make it useful to us. Advances in machine learning and neural networks are extraordinary and to be driven by increased computer power and decreased costs of computing.
And of course with the iPhone or the smartphones in general so widely established with such a broad user base I knew that this is the story of our time.
And all of the sudden I thought, “This reminds me so much of what was happening at the end of the ‘80s and beginning of the ‘90s.” As data types started to go digital and companies like Philips and Sony and Apple and Microsoft were inventing these new products that promised whole new ways of creating and consuming data, and it just felt like suddenly biology was the new digital and that a revolution was really taking place.
And that’s when I thought, “I’m a storyteller and I’ve got to tell these stories.” The media out there was very fragmented. It’s sort of one piece after another, but it doesn’t have a particular point of view and it doesn’t have context.
There was a huge open space and that’s why I started NEO.LIFE.
I needed to tell the world about this. I needed to share what I was learning. All of us will be called upon to make a number of very significant moral and ethical choices and if we don’t understand the biology or the technology, we will not be prepared to make the right choice. And so, sorry, I told you, it was not a short story.
H2.0: No, I really enjoyed that and I learned a lot. Let me ask you though, was the Neobiological Revolution ever notgoing to be a media company? Or, because of your time at Wired, did you feel like this was the very best avenue to spread this information?
JM: Well, I tried very hard not to start another media company. But I felt compelled to tell the story, because no one else was.
H2.0: That’s great. Being in the publishing business, can you speak to the responsibility to tell the truth and the real or perceived pressure not to, and how you balance those things?
JM: Yeah. It’s a big part of the reason why I really hesitated to get into media right now. The whole concept of advertising is really interesting and confusing to me. Where do you draw those lines? I think people are more sophisticated when it comes to media now and they know the difference between a journalistic approach and giving a platform to somebody, but it’s the in between area that can be misleading. And I don’t think that’s in anyone’s interest. It’s a very critical time for journalism.
And, I have been saying this for 30 years and I will say it until the day I die… the most important thing that we need to emphasize is media literacy. Don’t just read the headline. Look at the picture and the quotes, look at who wrote the piece, and at who owns the publication, and thenread the story. You must frame it first. We’re in a time when we are talking about the end of truth, right? If a video can be manipulated to make it look like anybody could have said anything, it really is the end of truth.
We have to be more sophisticated readers and we have to teach each generation media literacy; they have to understand the technology to understand how easy it is to manipulate it. And then it becomes a matter of really thinking for yourself and finding those credible voices whose perspective you trust.
H2.0: Yes. Thank you. That was a really beautiful response. And scary. Talking about the end of truth is no joke. Well, you mentioned the next generation and you also have kids, so I’m wondering how you kept them interested in STEM subjects?
JM: Well, it’s not hard; that’s all they know. No, I’m exaggerating. My son is a mechanical engineer and my daughter is studying computer science.
And it’s funny too because my daughter didn’t think that she was a nerd, but over the course of their lifetimes, nerds have gone from being social outcast to being the cool people.
The key is getting the education, having access to computers, and having access to people who can explain stuff to them easier.
My son’s primary learning came from video games. He spent months of his life playing SimCity games, which simulates how your choices would impact a population and he got really, really good at it. They also taught themselves stuff on YouTube. It’s funny because I was terrified that they would come to me to answer all their questions, but honestly by the time they were eight, they were answering their own questions and then we had conversations about it at the dinner table.
H2.0: Wow that’s incredible.
JM:Yeah, they realized that they could get the answers themselves, and that’s super empowering.
H2.0: Who do you look up to? Who do you admire?
JM: George Church just blows me away for so many different reasons. He is of course a brilliant scientist, and he has very clear values. The People’s Genome Project is so great. The idea that we would share this data so that all researchers can benefit is really exciting. There are so many impulses and incentives for clamping down on things, putting intellectual property under patents, and locking something up with proprietary licenses and all of that. I think his openness and spirit is genuinely important.
H2.0: What are you reading right now?
JM: Oh, gosh! I have like eight opened books on my desk, but I have about 40 magazines in front of me and I get about a 100 newsletters. What am I reading? I just finished the science fiction novel called “Autonomous,” which was written by Annalee Newitz who used to be the editor-in-chief of Gizmodo. She has written this brilliant novel about robots and autonomy and intellectual property and synthetic biology and gender and sexuality. It’s really, really fantastic.
H2.0: Back to NEO.LIFE, what do you dream for its future?
JM: I think we have not just the opportunity, but the advantage, to grow and foster a community where mindful deployment of these biotechnologies can be encouraged and checked at the same time. I want to put forth best practices so that people have a model to follow.
I want to highlight the ideas and the values that are going to build a cleaner, healthier world. New tools are in the hands of a lot of different kinds of people and a lot of different cultures with a lot of different values, but they have implications for the entire human race. I would like to be that editorial and community leader to help shape the Neobiological world to come.
H2.0: I’d say, so far so good.
JM: Thank you. It’s a long way from where I am today but I think we have a pretty extraordinary group of readers so far.
H2.0: That’s great. It’s lofty but it’s aspirational and I admire it.
H2.0: Thank you for doing this work.
JM: No, thank you. Thank you.