There just aren’t that many rich people who want to do scientifically adventurous things like fly in outer space or get their entire genomes sequenced. Fortunately for Cambridge, MA-based Knome, it has found a way to keep its genomic analysis business alive by doing something more than appealing to the curiosity, or vanity, of the mega-rich.
Knome, co-founded in 2007 by Harvard genomics ace George Church, made headlines in its early days when it said it sequenced and analyzed the genomes of three wealthy people for the cool sum of $350,000 each. A year later, the price dropped to $100,000, which meant that a few more folks with genetic diseases in their families were able to afford what it took to scrutinize their genomes. But only now that commercially available sequencers can blaze through an entire 6-billion letter human genome for less than $5,000, Knome has been able to branch out its business to appeal to a whole lot more people.
Molecular biologists and biochemists, for starters, are increasingly becoming curious about using the new tools of genomics for their experiments. But they typically don’t have the math and statistics background to make much sense of the data. People who are trained in bioinformatics who can help analyze and visualize these massive piles of raw data, as you might imagine, are in short supply and high demand these days. As academics start dreaming up all kinds of questions they can realistically ask through sequencing genomes for $5,000 a person, and Big Pharma companies even start to mull whether to sequence patients in their clinical drug trials, it’s created a broader base of interest in the kind of more automated genomic analysis and interpretation that Knome was built to provide.
“We are really working on two fronts now,” says Jorge Conde, Knome’s CEO and co-founder. “We’re trying to make bioinformaticians more efficient, to make it so they can do more with the data. And we are aiming to make the data more accessible to a non-bioinformatician.”
This, of course, is easier said than done. When you start talking to a biologist, or a physician for that matter, about various ways of looking at genomes, transcriptomes, exomes, and the increased or decreased probabilities of disease that might (or might not) stem from those results, eyes glaze quickly. “It’s a foreign language,” Conde says.
Knome is a private company, and doesn’t say much about its finances, but it is showing signs of gaining traction in its fourth year of operations. The company has built up a team of 30 employees in Cambridge, plus another 10 in India. It has recently come out with a version 2.0 of its software. Researchers from Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, the University of British Columbia, the University of Seoul, have started using the service, among others, Conde says.
Knome, financed by the founders in the beginning, has now pulled in a total of $12 million in investment capital from the founders, angels, France-based bioMerieux, and one more unnamed strategic investor. The latest strategic investment, worth $5 million, arrived in July, according to a regulatory filing. Knome now plans to “hire aggressively,” Conde says, and currently lists seven openings on its company site.
Conde wouldn’t disclose actual revenues, or Knome’s growth projections, but he did say in the first quarter of 2011, the company generated more revenue than it had in its cumulative history to that point.
The founding idea in 2007, Conde says, “was to make genomics accessible to the public.” But the cost of the sequencing in the first three years was still so high, there was no way it could be truly accessible, and only a select few genomics experts and bioinformaticians were able to use the Knome service. But now that Illumina, Life Technologies and Complete Genomics have all developed commercial sequencing technologies that can go for less than $5,000 a genome, Knome has found more interest in its software (called kGAP 2.0) that can compare new genomes sequenced on the various instruments vs. what is known in the scientific literature about relationships between DNA and disease.
Now that cost is really less of a barrier, there’s another one standing in the way of making genomics accessible—lack of expertise. Researchers in Big Pharma companies, and academic experts in certain diseases, have never gotten training in bioinformatics, and need some help sifting through everything.
This bioinformatics story has been told by entrepreneurs many times over the past decade, and yet nobody has really come along and built a big business on making software for genomic analysis. Many scientists have opted for home-brew software programs designed for their specific task. Part of what’s different now is the sheer volume of the data, now that worldwide capacity for genome sequencing is skyrocketing. There frankly aren’t enough bioinformaticians to write those home-brew programs. Just as recently as a couple three years ago, there were fewer than a dozen human genomes sequenced worldwide. In 2011, scientists have begun speculating whether there’s now capacity to sequence tens of thousands of genomes this year alone.
Knome still offers the personal genome analysis service for wealthy individuals, but Conde sought to downplay it when we spoke, saying the service to researchers is where the growth will be. “For us to see [the consumer] market explode, it’s going to require one of two things. Some form of reimbursement. Or the cost will have to fall below $5,000, probably below $2,000 to get a lot of consumers interested.”
Scientists out there are probably wondering, ‘So can you actually learn anything useful from what they’re selling.” Conde pointed to one recent paper from scientists at the University of British Columbia who used the Knome service to help uncover some new insights into a stretch of the genome that may have something to do with inherited cases of Parkinson’s disease.
Nobody can really say with a straight face how big the market might be for interpreting all this genomic data. Conde didn’t offer up a figure when I asked, but it undoubtedly has potential to be a lot bigger than the few million that investors have pumped in so far.
“If we can help pharmaceutical companies make clinical decisions, a lot of value can be brought to bear there,” Conde says. “Working with academic researchers is a smaller market, but still attractive.” The end game, he says, will be medical applications built on better understanding of the genome. But don’t hold your breath. “That’s a few years away,” Conde says.
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