Emerging Technologies Will Have Sweeping Impacts

Technological changes in the life sciences will bring with them sweeping impacts across technological, economic, social, and political systems in coming decades. These impacts could, in turn, drive revolutionary change in a number of industries.

Life sciences are defined as any form of science involving the study of living organisms [1]. This definition is broad and encompasses many branches of science, including cellular biology, genetics, biochemistry, bioengineering, bioinformatics, biotechnology, epidemiology, hematology, and various other branches of science [2]. In a literal sense, these areas of study focus on living things and delve into what they are made of, what can go wrong, and what can be done to correct those problems or enhance the biological functioning of these living systems.

Key Trends Driving Change in the Life Sciences

Over the next decade, six key trends will drive technological, economic, and workforce changes in the life sciences.

  1. Digital Transformation: Biopharmaceutical and medical device companies will introduce new forms of digital health therapies and health services that will assist patients in making changes to their health, give providers real-time insights and data, and give employers and insurers new tools to more effectively manage their beneficiaries’ health. [3]
  2. Workforce Trends: As AI, data analytics, and automated technologies expand, the focus of healthcare and life science workers is likely to shift. Part of this trend may entail reskilling or upskilling certain employees to work in concert with these new technologies. [3]
  3. Tax Reforms: Tax reforms implemented in recent years will allow some healthcare organizations to turn their tax savings into new financial opportunities while hindering others. [3]
  4. Innovative Strategies: Companies will seek to increase profits on uninsured and underinsured customers by innovating strategies that differ from the norm. Similar to the way Southwest changed flying and Uber changed driving, by implementing new business strategies some life science industries will be capable of doing business with groups that were previously underrepresented. [3]
  5. Investment: Private equity firms are investing in healthcare companies at an increased rate. Private equity firms completed 672 healthcare deals in 2017, more than tripling the 200 deals completed in 2009. [3] In 2018, venture capital investment in the life sciences reached a 10-year high. [4] These investments will allow life science companies to bolster their core areas, producing new technologies and advancing scientific exploration.
  6. Government Regulation: Organizations in the life science industries will face continuing, perhaps expanded, government regulation. The political environment in the US is likely to impact different life science areas in various ways. Public concerns about health and health care in the United States continue to be a major political issue. While policies under Republican administrations in the United States have typically been friendly to corporate interests, a significant shift in health and health care policy could occur if a Democratic administration is elected in the 2020 national elections. Companies should pay particular attention to both public sentiment and the political climate in order to anticipate how the government regulation may aid or hinder them. [5]

Life Science Technologies

A broad range of technologies affecting the life sciences are being developed at an unprecedented rate, driving even more discovery and innovation.

  • Biological engineering, gene editing, and synthetic biology have made it possible to engineer new organisms. It is expected that with the amount of genomic data now being amassed, any type of cell or organism could be reproduced or modified. By creating and programming cells, scientists may be able to find new solutions for many issues in humans and other biological systems. [6]
  • Nanotechnology has allowed scientists to create structures and devices at a molecular level. This means that countries or groups capable of this have the potential to be free of global trade ties. By manufacturing molecules, it may be possible to create many of the raw materials currently required in various manufacturing processes. This could revolutionize manufacturing and production across not just the life sciences but other industries as well. [6]
  • Automation driven by AI is impacting in various life science areas. Everything from drug discovery to medical diagnosis to AI-enhanced treatments for medical conditions will be impacted by developments in AI. [6]
  • Stem cell research and therapy is a promising area of medicine that has the potential to allow for complete healing of damaged tissues and organs. Combined with 3-D printing, this is a promising area of medicine that may play a role in curing or treating a broad range of medical issues. [6]
  • Augmented Reality (AR) is being implemented in the education of future doctors. These 3-D demonstrations are being used to show students and doctors how drugs work, allow clinical researchers a new way to monitor their studies, and to teach nurses how to more effectively administer drugs. [7]

Pharmaceutical Industry

The pharmaceutical industry is seeing rapid change, with a number of notable trends that will change the industry.

  • Artificial Intelligence: Like most industries, AI is making waves in pharmaceutical

development and production. While various forms of automation have been used to increase production, the surge in AI will mainly impact the R&D area. AI will increase drug development efficiency and improve research efforts by reducing wasted time and resources in this area. The ability to collect and analyze massive amounts of data will help streamline research and trials, as well as provide new insights. [8]

  • Pharmaceutical Budgets: The price of pharmaceuticals combatting various life-threatening disease has risen in recent years, and there are worldwide debates surrounding the justification of these price increases. Pharmaceutical companies are now implementing short term cost-containing measures, but a long-term issue is how those companies will balance the need for affordable drugs without sacrificing profits. [8]
  • Corporate Restructuring: As demand for outdated products declines, pharmaceutical executives are restructuring their organizations to gear up for coming changes in the industry. This entails reducing staff, refocusing R&D, closing manufacturing plants, and divesting poorly-performing businesses. The money saved by implementing these changes is being reinvested in the development and production of new drugs. While this restructuring may prove to be beneficial in the long run, it produces short term challenges. Process disruption and hindrance of development programs are likely outcomes during this time of restructuring. [8]

Healthcare Industry

The healthcare sector is central to the life sciences and will likely be impacted by a broad range of trends. Four key trends include:

  • Investment: Life science companies, and healthcare in particular, are likely to see investments from tech companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. These companies are looking to leverage their technologies and are targeting growing healthcare fields that could benefit from this relationship. On the tech side, many leading companies have hired senior life science personnel to help advance these capabilities. On the healthcare side, life science companies are seeking to innovate by linking tech and healthcare. One example of this is digital therapeutics, where a drug is accompanied by a sensor to more effectively monitor patient care. These two industries are likely to grow and innovate together in years to come. [9]
  • Personalized medicine: A major area of development is personalized medicine. By analyzing genetic data and biomarkers, doctors can better treat patients suffering from various medical conditions. As medical science continues to advance, we are understanding more about pathophysiology and innovating more effective ways to address these issues. In 2007, there were only 3 personalized medicines available; by 2017, there were 132 personalized medicines on the market. Advanced medicines designed to combat particular medical issues based on the genetic makeup of the patient are likely to become increasingly more common. [9]
  • Restructuring: While the traditional hospital setting is of vital importance, the healthcare sector is seeing a shift in location for certain types of care. CVS, Rite Aid, and other similar companies are partnering with larger health organizations to provide various health services for patients outside of the traditional healthcare setting. Polls have shown that more than 50% of consumers are willing to receive healthcare outside of the traditional setting if the care is convenient and affordable. 60% of healthcare executives have expressed interest in expanding their outpatient, retail, and home health capabilities to broaden their access. [10]
  • Regulation of data: With advances in medical technology comes an increased need for data security. Wearable technology such as Fitbit, the rise of the e-health industry, increased popularity of genetic testing, and various other advancements in healthcare all provide new opportunities but introduce risks as well. These advances will likely give rise to new legal questions regarding sensitive patient data, and healthcare providers should be thinking of new ways to protect this data. [9]

Agriculture/Food Industries

The life sciences are central to the food and agricultural industries; changes in life science technologies will have a very significant impact on food production.

  • Genetic editing: TALEN and CRISPR are two prominent tools used to modify organisms genetically. They both work like scissors, cutting the double helix of a plant’s DNA at preprogrammed spots. When the DNA heals itself, it deletes the gene next to the cut. This “turns off” a certain gene in a plant’s DNA. Scientists are now working on adding new genes at the break in the DNA. This could potentially lead to more resilient plants that are healthier for human consumption. [11]

There are numerous examples of this at work. The Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain has developed a strain of low-gluten wheat that can be used to create various food products for people with gluten allergies. Pennsylvania State University has created mushrooms that do not brown. Scientists at universities throughout the US are working on crops that can withstand drought, disease, and various other climate related factors. [11]

  • 3D printing: 3D printing has become exceedingly popular in recent years for good reason; it allows for the rapid production of various things with minimal physical effort from its human operator. This technology is currently being developed to assist in food production. This technology is already being used in various ways.

Dovetailed Design Studio, in collaboration with Microsoft, has developed a 3D printer that can create fruit. Using a molecular 3D technique called “spherification”, they are able to print any type of fruit within seconds. The printer can even change the flavors of the fruit through a combination of fruit juice and sodium alginate powder. [12]

In South Korea, researchers are catering to elderly people by developing 3D printed foods that are easier to chew. The main concern is that softer foods, which are easier for elderly people to consume, may not be as healthy. With 3D printing, soft food can be created while maintaining the nutritional value of firm foods. This is done by grinding the food down into tiny nutrients at a low temperature with liquid nitrogen. [13]


Emerging technological advances in the life sciences will have broad economic, social, and political implications.

Medical technologies, for example, will change at an unprecedented rate as the combination of advanced computer and information technology and new knowledge, techniques, and tools in the fields of biotechnology and nanotechnology impact the development of new ways to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries.

Social and political pressure over healthcare, drug costs, and other health-related issues in the United States will drive the search for technological and organizational innovation, as well as regulatory solutions for these issues. Competitive pressures are expected to increase over the next decade as organizations in the health and wellness industry face increased competition from businesses both within the industry and outside of it.

Climate change, species extinction, and other environmental concerns are expected to have increasingly significant negative impacts on food production. At the same time, the increase in the global population over the next four to five decades will drive up demand for food. Technological solutions such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are seen by some as the way to meet the challenges of feeding a hungry world. However, this technology-driven approach is controversial and could encounter resistance from consumers. Food producers will need find a way to balance these conflicting needs and values.

In the turmoil resulting from technological advances in the life sciences, organizations can find opportunities as well as challenges. This will require a comprehensive understanding of a broad range of trends impacting these organizations and the agility to be able to respond quickly to seize opportunities as they occur. 

Related Briefs

  • TF-2019-04: The Future of Food & Food Science looks at emerging technologies that are changing how food is produced and prepared.
  • TF-2018-01: Advanced Medical Nanotechnologies examines how medically-oriented nanotechnologies promise to reshape medical care.
  • TF-2017-05: Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare offers an overview of how advances in AI could allow computer technology to play a bigger role in health care.
  • TF-2016-01: CRISPR Gene Editing provides a perspective on how CRISPR gene editing technology can fundamentally change genetic engineering.
  • TF-2015-23: Health – A “Technology Values” Update examines the future of consumer health and wellness and its implications on nutrition, healthcare services, and other health-related issues.

Works Cited

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[3]PwC, “2019 Trends Brief from PwC,” Pharmaceutical Executive, 9 January 2019. [Online]. Available: http://www.pharmexec.com/2019-trends-brief-pwc. [Accessed 18 May 2019].
[4]A. Dearment, “Life Sciences VC Investments Similar to Tech, But There Are Differences,” MedCity News, 4 November 2018. [Online]. Available: https://medcitynews.com/2018/11/life-sciences-vc-investment-trends-similar-to-tech-but-there-are-differences/. [Accessed 10 June 2019].
[5]“Top health industry issues of 2019,” PwC, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.pwc.com/us/en/industries/health-industries/top-health-industry-issues.html. [Accessed 18 May 2019].
[6]J. Pandya, “Top 10 Technology Trends Transforming Humanity Beyond Cyberspace, Geospace, and Space,” COGNITIVE WORLD, 18 March 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cognitiveworld/2019/03/18/top-10-technology-trends-transforming-humanity-beyond-cyberspace-geospace-and-space/#4bbd50d83b57. [Accessed 18 May 2019].
[7]Veeva Systems, “12 Life Science Trends to Look Forward to in 2018,” Veeva Systems, 11 January 2018. [Online]. Available: http://www.pharmexec.com/12-life-sciences-trends-look-forward-2018. [Accessed 18 May 2019].
[8]T. Dougal, “Pharma Outlook: 12 Trends to Watch in 2019,” CPhI , 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.cphi.com/europe/visit/news-and-updates/pharma-outlook-12-trends-watch-2019. [Accessed 29 May 2019].
[9]D. Phillips, “Healthcare: Five key trends in the life sciences sector,” The Irish Times, 13 December 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.irishtimes.com/special-reports/life-sciences/healthcare-five-key-trends-in-the-life-sciences-sector-1.3719502. [Accessed 29 May 2019].
[10]S. DeVore, “Health Care in 2019: Five Key Trends To Watch,” Health Affairs, 10 January 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20190109.546126/full/. [Accessed 29 May 2019].
[11]C. Dewey, “The Future of Food,” The Washington Post, 11 August 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2018/08/11/feature/the-future-of-food-scientists-have-found-a-fast-and-cheap-way-to-edit-your-edibles-dna/?utm_term=.a9a9dd58f517. [Accessed 29 May 2019].
[12]A. P, “TOP 12 applications of food in 3D printing,” 3Dnatives, 22 May 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.3dnatives.com/en/food-3d-printing220520184/. [Accessed 29 May 2019].
[13]K. Peikoff, “Would You Eat These Futuristic Foods?,” Future Frontiers , 29 June 2019. [Online]. Available: https://leapsmag.com/would-you-eat-these-futuristic-foods/. [Accessed 29 May 2019].