In January 2015 an article in the Daily Telegraph quoted a university study that suggested people with more Facebook friends should be given flu jabs as a priority. Their rationale was that such people represented 'super-connectors' who, like 21st century Typhoid Marys, were at the heart of disease transmission. The targeted vaccination of this population would have systemic impact on the epidemiology of the disease.

On reading this story, I wondered whether the premise underlying this public health strategy was valid. Is there any correlation between the number of Facebook friends people have and the number of real, physical friends who might actually touch them? Luckily, this is the sort of question that others have also pondered – notably Stephen Marche in The Atlantic. He tells the story of Yvette Vickers (the star of B movie classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), who died alone but whose death was the subject of more than 16,000 Facebook posts.  Marche and others have documented a non-intuitive correlation between loneliness and connectedness, and found a compelling link.

Oxford anthropologist/psychologist/behavioural scientist Steven Dunbar coined 'Dunbar’s number' to quantify how many people we can have a real relationship with, to the extent that we can remember their name and interact in a meaningful way. The number lies between 100 and 200, which correlates with the average number of relationships that most people have. In real life, super-connectors are extremely rare outliers unlikely to be identified from their online avatars.

Some of the most interesting intellectual property in the world underpins the search for these super-connectors in social networks, biochemistry, neuroscience, epidemiology, ecology, financial markets and national security. They represent nodes or crossroads of connectivity and act as processing centres where multiple inputs are aggregated and integrated. As such, they represent the most valuable place to post advertisements, target drugs or use surveillance. A plethora of patents in this area are filed by Google, Facebook and other tech companies, but also less obvious innovators.

A good example in this area is E-Therapeutics (ETX), a UK-based public company founded in 2001 by Malcom Young. ETX develops drugs by mapping the biological pathways that influence a disease and targeting the critical nodes within them. ETX has been granted fundamental patents for its approach to identifying the most important nodes in these biological networks. The criteria that ETX uses to identify critical nodes include the number of connected pathways or other nodes, the nature of the connection and the distance or relatedness between different nodes. The impact of the removal of a node on network function is also a key criterion, as is relative node strength compared to competing pathways (biochemical back-up circuits).

A number of the company’s patent applications have extra-industry application. For example, one patent application is called “Method and apparatus for generating a ranked index of web pages”. This is an explicit cross-industry projection of intellectual property originally conceived for drug development as it deals with link spam, which artificially boosts page rankings by creating false links.

When searching for IP overlap between Google and ETX, I found a significant heatmap, with the areas of greatest interest being indexing, page ranking and links. Therefore, the qualitative picture is one of cross-industry convergence around some fundamental thinking that Young has done on how networked systems work similarly in living organisms and data networks. This intrigues me.

During my early scientific career I followed a reductionist pathway to understand the mechanism of action of certain electrical signals in the brain. My research sat between protein chemistry, pharmacology and the emergent science of molecular genetics. Thirty years later, this has evolved into genetics and system analysis. Big Data-driven statistical analysis of gene sequences and mapping of neural networks has changed the perspective of research.  This is exemplified by the emergence of the Connectome. Most of this progress has been made possible by the parallel and exponential growth in computing power and data analytics. Biology is becoming a branch of statistics.

In the struggle to develop useful functionality, programmers and engineers often reinvent the wheel. However, lately there seems to be a shift towards recognising that the software in living systems may provide the best framework for man-made systems. This is particularly true in drone engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics and the creation of virtual worlds. As the analogue world migrates relentlessly towards a digital future, the rules, processes and tools that facilitate this are increasingly borrowed from biology and biology itself is becoming invigorated by the reverse trend. Calico, Google’s joint venture with US healthcare company AbbVie, is a good example of this; as is IBM’s Watson. 

I expect to see a lot more IP overlap as a convergence between biology, software and engineering develops.The market has not yet generally recognised this IP bleed as having value – perhaps due to the specialisms of industry analysts – but I believe that it will. Those innovators that can read and apply their intellectual property across industries offer a new source of disruption, litigation, shareholder value and ultimately progress. ETX’s stock price does not yet resemble Google’s. But in future, it just might.

Chris Donegan

This article first appeared in IAM magazine. For further information please visit www.iam-magazine.com.