Illumina Opens Apple-Inspired App Store for DNA Software Developers

4/25/12Follow @xconomy

San Diego-based Illumina has talked openly about how it is inspired by the way Apple integrates hardware and software, and now it’s taking another cue from the consumer technology colossus.

Illumina, the market-leading maker of DNA sequencing instruments, said today it is creating an open platform for genomic software developers to make apps for scientific customers who want to slice and dice through DNA data. This new initiative is called Basespace Apps, and will enable researchers to store their data on cloud computing infrastructure provided by Amazon Web Services, and then make it possible to download various genomic software “apps” to analyze and interpret the data.

The new initiative, being announced today at the Bio-IT World conference in Boston, represents an interesting new way for Illumina to help customers deal with their data-overload problem, while also helping some scrappy startups get some hard-earned visibility for their applications. Essentially, the idea is that Illumina can enhance the value of its MiSeq benchtop DNA sequencing instrument by allowing people outside the company to develop software apps to make the whole hardware/software package more attractive, like the iPhone benefits from its constellation of independently-developed apps.

“If you have a strong position in hardware, it’s very interesting to create a place where people can do a couple different things,” says Alex Dickinson, Illumina’s senior vice president of cloud genomics. “One thing is in the cloud where data is stored and interchanged. But if you can layer on that a world with a lot of bioinformatics players, a lot of people can figure out how they’ll ride the wave.” He adds: “There’s an interesting chance to draw all these concepts together at Basespace.”

Alex Dickinson

There’s definitely potential for various players to see mutual benefits under such a system. Many small genomic software companies struggle to sell their products and get the attention of research customers. Illumina already has the sales relationship with those customers, and while its hardware is widely used and respected, its customers are drowning in data without IT offerings to interpret it all. For the customers, Dickinson says an Illumina-based app ecosystem can provide “1-click access” to interesting software apps without having to do a lot of work hunting around for them at random.

Illumina has been talking with various bioinformatics companies for several months about the possibility of inviting them to develop apps for the Basespace Apps store, and essentially “100 percent said yes,” Dickinson says.

The group of initial partners includes:

San Diego-based Diagnomics

Victoria, BC-based GenoLogics Life Sciences

Germany-based Genomatix

Bozeman, MT-based Golden Helix

Redwood City, CA-based Ingenuity Systems

Cambridge, MA-based Knome

Emeryville, CA-based Omicia

Seattle-based Spiral Genetics

Hungary-based Omixon

San Francisco-based Real Time Genomics

Silicon Valley-based Station X

Spain-based Integromics Inc.

Germany-based Biomax Informatics AG

India-based Strand Life Sciences

Illumina isn’t saying what percentage cut of the revenues it will take from Basespace App store sales, but Dickinson said Apple’s traditional 70/30 split with content providers was a reasonable benchmark. Illumina plans to maintain the billing relationship with customers, and then split proceeds from the app sales with the vendors, he says.

Pricing is still one of the big questions that needs to be worked out before the Basespace Apps program becomes widely available, Dickinson says. Illumina’s Basespace cloud storage system, which runs on Amazon Web Services’ cloud infrastructure, is currently offered free to customers using MiSeq instruments. But that won’t last forever, he says, as Illumina is looking at a monthly subscription fee model for DNA data storage on Basespace.

As for the apps, Illumina is in talks with its partners about how to set up prices, possibly on a pay-per-use basis, Dickinson says. Pricing could vary based on what kind of analysis the customer wants to do, or how computationally intensive it is, he says. It’s possible that Illumina and its partners could agree on a “dynamic pricing” system in which customers can essentially strike up an auction among vendors who will bid to do a certain task through their app, Dickinson says.

Illumina, like Apple does with its App Store, will also be performing the role of a gatekeeper. As sequencing becomes more common with human DNA, and can potentially identify diseases or abnormalities in individuals, Illumina wants to make sure that the data is kept secure, and not misused, Dickinson says. “We want to make sure the apps are reputable and not doing bad stuff. There will be a certain amount of governance,” he says.

There is some time to work out the business models, the technology of the apps, and the governance. The plan is for Basespace Apps to be available to early-access customers in August, and then to the wider group of Illumina customers in September, Dickinson says.

The movement toward an Illumina-based app ecosystem is a big part of a long-term strategy at Illumina, Dickinson says. As sequencing keeps getting faster and cheaper, and eventually moves toward lightweight, portable instruments, there will be ever-greater demand for IT applications to sort through the data. That means customers will want an elegant combination of hardware and software. “We are essentially moving from mainframe to the desktop. In the future, sequencing instruments will get smaller and more mobile, so having a great cloud solution and app store is key,” he says.

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