The legend of the "killer app" is a story every new entrepreneur learns from the elders. There are many variations, but the general idea is that scores of brilliant researchers and brave businessfolk work many years on breakthrough technologies and products with little to show for it-- until one day, the stars align, a "killer app" is born, and a lucky few get to join the ranks of the self-made billionaire. There are plenty of real-life examples of this in every industry (and sub-industry), and from a narrative perspective, it is hard to argue that this is one of the defining themes in technology innovation. What I hope to explain in this post is that while this story is true for the successful "killer apps," it does not imply that there is any way to predict beforehand what that application will be. I will use the World Cup as a crutch to illustrate this point, which at the time of this post is entering the semi-final round in Brazil.
If you are an innovator in an emerging market space, you should definitely strive to find the "killer app." (Note: there really isn't a good definition or criteria of what constitutes a "killer app," but if your investors ever say you've found it, have a party. My own vague definition is that success will transform what was previously a "niche application" to one that the whole world, including your grandmother, is using.) In the midst of this quest, don't waste your time trying to convince anyone that you know the answer. If you must, assert that you have discovered a possible answer. Consider the question "do you know who will win the World Cup?" The correct answer (until time-travel is possible) is "of course not." But poll your friends and you are unlikely to get that response. Further, if you are clever enough to re-ask this question over the course of the tournament (being careful not to offend anyone), I'm sure you'll also find that individual responses will change over time. "I was sure that team A was great, but they are all screwed up, so of course team B will win." When the final game is over, there will be a definitive champion, and then you can brag about your foresight.
My graduate work was in the field of microfluidics, and in those days (as I'm sure it's still true today), we spent many nights thinking about potential applications for the technology. Even more telling, there were hundreds of peer-reviewed publications on novel applications, and probably only a handful have reached any level of commercial success. As some readers may know, the dominant application for biological microfluidics today is for next-generation sequencing sample preparation. Suffice to say, this was not obvious to many experts 10-15 years ago. This doesn't mean that most of us didn't think about this application, or were blind to the factors for its success. But the fact is that it was one application out of many that could have taken off. Of course, there were a number of people who did bet big on this application, and were aptly rewarded for it. It is worth noting that even in the face of uncertainty, passion and conviction for your team is critical. Just think of the feeling if your team does win the World Cup of being able to say "I knew it from the beginning-- and I'm right!" It's also helpful to know that just like sports fans, the technology community appreciates a passionate fan of a losing team much more than an opportunistic supporter of the victor.
The field of dynamic cell analysis has yet to find it's "killer app," although many have been in contention for a number of years. Continued advances in the field show high probability that one will emerge, but when and which one is impossible to predict. In my view, the current "bracket" of contenders (in no particular order) includes the fields of: in vitro toxicity testing (organ-on-a-chip), precision stem cell control, cell-based weapons against cancer heterogeneity, manipulating/decoding brain neuron firing, pathogen detection (food, virus, infection), environmental monitoring (climate change, ecosystem health), bio-energy production, lab-grown food, cell-based consumer health devices, and cell-based manufacturing (many of these will be detailed in future posts). There are plenty of intrepid teams working in all of these areas (and other interesting areas that are not listed), and when a victor does get crowned, we should make sure to celebrate-- and then start preparations for the next round.