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Seven Bridges Gets $45M, Begins Test Run for Cancer Genomics Tool

Xconomy Boston — 

When President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative last year ears perked up at Seven Bridges Genomics, one of a number of startups that helps researchers store, analyze, and interpret huge amounts of genomic data. The announcement meant more large-scale genomic data projects were on the way for the Cambridge, MA-based startup to fight for. And a $45 million Series A round that the company is revealing today will help Seven Bridges compete for that work.

The cash comes from Kryssen Capital, a firm that invests in data-centric startups, and is the first institutional round Seven Bridges has raised since its inception in 2009. According to company president James Sietstra, the company funded itself for years on revenue, some debt from Western Technology Investment, and personal financing, and now has 200 employees in four offices around the globe—in Cambridge, San Francisco, Belgrade, and London. Seven Bridges adopted that funding strategy because the timing wasn’t right for a venture investment, he says.

“We basically have been taking the long view on the opportunity in biomedical data analysis,” Sietstra says. “It’s still so early that one of the things we were sensitive to was investor timelines, and investor pressure. So we thought that it was optimal to find financing strategies that allowed us to wait until now to raise institutional financing.”

Sietstra (pictured above, right, with CEO Deniz Kural) wouldn’t be more specific about the company’s revenues or other financial information, and declined to say whether Seven Bridges is profitable. But a quick internet search shows that Seven Bridges has won contracts with the National Cancer Institute ($5.8 million), Genomics England’s Small Business Research Initiative (roughly $2.9 million), and the National Institutes of Health ($4.13 million) since 2014. Sietstra says that Seven Bridges also works with “multiple top 10 pharma” companies and several Boston-area biotechs, but couldn’t disclose which ones due to confidentiality agreements.

That speaks to the growing need for tools to help store, analyze, and interpret genomic information. As the cost of sequencing has continued to drop and researchers have learned more and more about the underlying molecular causes for various diseases, a bottleneck was created. Namely, an explosion of genomic data, and not enough computing tools to help researchers make sense of what they see, share the data from one research center to another, and make complex analyses easily reproducible.

Enter a slew of startups, all with various approaches to opening the bottleneck. Cypher Genomics, just acquired by Human Longevity in November, developed software for interpreting genomic data. DNAnexus of Redwood City, CA, has a cloud-based system that efficiently stores large amounts of genomic data and helps researchers organize and analyze it. Boston-based Curoverse manages and maintains what’s known as Arvados, an open-source computational platform that also houses massive amounts of genomic data. (Check out this link for a list of many of the companies with cloud-based genomics tools)

Seven Bridges is part of this group, too. The company’s executives say that their niche is an ability to provide these services not for small labs running a few experiments, but for large organizations that want access to a massive amount of genomic data—Sietstra called it “million genome scale research”—without building the infrastructure for it.

“There are other people who provide software solutions, but very rarely does that come with all the pieces that a large enterprise needs to actually do their work,” says director of product marketing Andrew Gruen.

Large pharma companies, for instance, might need tools for storing and analyzing genomic data collected through experimental studies to help find patients who might respond best to their drugs. Seven Bridges charges an upfront annual licensing fee, which typically starts in the $50,000 to $75,000 range and goes into the millions, for the service, Sietstra says.

Government clients, meanwhile, might need a cloud-based platform to house a large amount of data that researchers at different locations can tap into. Seven Bridges, for instance, was one of three groups selected by the National Cancer Institute in 2014 to develop a software platform, the Cancer Genomics Cloud, that houses data from the Cancer Genome Atlas—a more than petabyte-sized catalogue of genomic data from over 11,000 cancer patients. Seven Bridges is launching a pilot version of the CGC today, meaning it’s immediately available to researchers approved by the NIH. (The other two groups selected by the NCI to develop pilots for the CGC were the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, in tandem with UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, and Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology.)

Large-scale genomic data projects like these, particularly in cancer research, are on the rise with the advent of Obama’s precision medicine plan. Seven Bridges aims to be a key player here, which is why it’s finally raised a sizeable investment round. It’s even found some political help for the task—former U.S. Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle has joined its board.

“He’s going to help advise us as we navigate some of those White House precision medicine projects and just better understand how to approach the NIH, NCI, and the other departments,” Sietstra says of Daschle.  “We’re pumped about that.”