A flood of new genetic data generated by advanced DNA sequencing systems has landed some life sciences researchers in a bit of information-management pickle. But this problem is a major opportunity for GenomeQuest and its competitors in the business of proving DNA analysis software.
GenomeQuest aspires to do for biologists what Google did for people searching the Internet, according to CEO Ron Ranauro. The Westborough, MA-based company has seen an increase in demand for its software and technology, which life sciences companies use to analyze and manage the genetic information they use, say, during the development of new drugs for cancer or diabetes.
According to Ranauro, his firm is having success because of a confluence of trends in genomic research and the way drug developers and research institutions use computers to do this work. For one, ever-faster and cheaper DNA sequencing systems—developed by companies such as Roche (which bought 454), and San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN)—are enabling researchers to generate genetic data at unprecedented scales and speeds. Meantime, life sciences firms are looking to cloud computing to help trim their capital equipment costs and overhead needed to maintain internal IT systems.
GenomeQuest has developed the capability to enable drug companies and other research outfits to analyze genetic information in the cloud. This means that a researcher with an Internet connection can use the software firm’s Web-based software to, say, identify the genes underlying a specific disease. (The firm also sells its software to companies that can install and operate it on their own internal servers.) GenomeQuest maintains its own database of genetic sequences, aggregated from other sources such as the NIH’s gene database kept by the National Center for Biotechnology Information and patent records that include DNA sequences. The company’s browser enables its customers to search its database and compare the genetic information from their own research to the firm’s online repository.
“Research is undergoing the digitization that you see in other industries,” Ranauro says. “We call it biology 2.0, where the actual scientific discovery can happen in the computer and be augmented by the lab, as opposed to the other way around where most of the discovery was done in the lab and augmented by the computer.”
GenomeQuest is very much an offshoot from the Human Genome Project, the 13-year international effort that provided researchers with the full 3-billion letter DNA sequence inside every human cell. Jean-Jacques Codani, who was part of the French team involved with the project, developed the core search technology used to mine genetic data with the GenomeQuest platform in the 1990s. He’s now the chief scientific officer of the company, which he founded as Gene-IT in 1998, before it became a U.S. entity in 2005 and later changed its name to GenomeQuest, according to Ranauro.
The firm says that its technology is used by researchers at more than 160 institutions, including 17 of the 20 largest pharmaceutical firms, such as GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), and Sanofi-Aventis (NYSE:SNY). Indeed, GenomeQuest said in press release earlier this month that its 2009 sales grew for the fourth consecutive year, though the firm does not reveal specific financial figures. Ranauro also tells me that his firm has raised three rounds of venture funding during this period of growth from Mosaix Ventures, of Chicago, New York City venture firms Cross Atlantic Partners and Milestone Venture Partners, as well as Amundi Private Equity Funds, which has offices in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Yet the CEO declined to say how much his company has raised.
While sales are growing at GenomeQuest, so is the number of competitors in business of genetic analysis and search technologies. Seattle-based startup Geospiza is a notable contender in providing cloud-based delivery of genomic analysis software; last year the firm turned heads when it released version of its software built on top of the Amazon Web Services cloud computing platform, making the service available to researchers with next-generation sequencing systems made by Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE). Ranauro says he is keeping tabs on at least four other firms that he considers competition.
Still, there might be enough business to go around. Ranauro estimates that the life sciences research market for his products is about $200 million annually. But his firm is making strategic moves of its own to grab as much of that market as it can. In September, the firm formed an alliance with information giant Thomson Reuters to co-market and integrate repositories of genomic research-related patent information to patent experts and researchers. The firm also has an application-programming interface (API) that enables its customers to integrate GenomeQuest’s technology into the systems that the customers use in their everyday research.
We’ll see whether GenomeQuest can be innovative enough to emerge from the digital revolution in research as a Google-type success. While customers pay for subscriptions to the company’s software, it also provides free accounts to scientists that offer basic services. After all, free access to search technology was a vital first step for Google (NASDAQ:GOOG).
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