Illumina Takes Page From Apple Playbook, in Blending Hardware and Software for the Genome

10/20/11Follow @xconomy

Illumina has long been about hardware, hardware, hardware. The San Diego-based company became the market leader in DNA sequencing instruments by focusing on the hardware and the consumable chemicals to run the machines. Its scientific customers were basically on their own when it came to finding software to analyze all the DNA data Illumina machines could pump out.

But things have changed this year. Now Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), driven to fend off hungry rivals like Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE), Complete Genomics (NASDAQ: GNOM), and Pacific Biosciences (NASDAQ: PACB), is looking to take a page out of the Apple playbook. The Illumina strategy is becoming more about combining hardware and software in a simple way that works well together.

“A lot of people here are inspired by Apple,” says Alex Dickinson, an Illumina senior vice president. “The amazing thing about Apple is the seamless integration between hardware they provide, and software and services. Look at the iPhone and iTunes. They stepped that up, introducing iCloud, which offers extraordinary seamless integration.” (I’m sure my colleague Wade will disagree with that last statement about iCloud, but that’s another story).

Dickinson will be on hand at our next big Xconomy event “Computing in the Age of the $1,000 Genome” on Monday, Oct. 24 in San Francisco, to elaborate more on where Illumina is going with this.

Illumina is being driven in this combined hardware/software direction by customers, who are telling the company that sequencing itself has gotten so fast and cheap that they can’t really analyze and interpret the data fast enough to keep up anymore. Since whole genomes can be sequenced now for $4,000, it doesn’t take a genius to see the interpretation and analysis getting even more overwhelming when the price of sequencing drops to a highly-accessible $1,000 per genome, as many observers predict it will within a couple years.

Alex Dickinson

Illumina’s newest version of its MiSeq desktop sequencer reflects the Apple-inspired integration. The MiSeq, which costs about $125,000, is now supported by a cloud-computing program called BaseSpace, which is supported by Amazon Web Services. Illumina touted this new offering as the “Most Intuitive and Fully Integrated Personal Sequencer Experience” when the product was announced earlier this month at the American Society of Human Genetics conference in Montreal.

Here’s how Dickinson described the new tool:

“We built a graphical interface into the instrument itself,” Dickinson says. “You check a box on instrument, and it can start streaming your data into BaseSpace. The user gets a Mozy or Dropbox-like ability to get automated off-site data backup. And once that data is up in the cloud, the next step is for us to offer tools for bioinformatics. Borrowing from Apple, we are building an open app store. We have five apps that are Illumina-made apps to start with, and we are working with other companies to bring them in. Just like with Facebook and iPhone app, people have access to develop on this platform.”

Getting this right will be easier said than done. Sequencing is just now starting to get cheap and accessible enough so that it’s no longer the exclusive domain of the small number of bioinformatics experts at hard-core sequencing centers around the world. There are ease-of-use issues, language barriers, security, and getting data in formats so that it’s easily shared from lab to lab. Some researchers are also still a bit paranoid about letting go of their data to the cloud, rather than keeping it at a server where they can see it on campus.

Illumina CEO Jay Flatley has expressed his skepticism about getting into the computing side of genomics, which he described as “road kill” in an Xconomy interview back in April 2010. But bioinformatics (an older term for genomic computing that has the small-time taint of “cottage industry”) has started to take on increasing importance among the top sequencing labs, which can churn out data much faster than insights can be extracted. Goldman Sachs analyst Isaac Ro said in a recent report that sequencing labs are looking to boost their spending on bioinformatics from 2 percent of their budget, to 10 percent in the short term, and potentially 50 percent over a period of years.

Illumina, a company which missed its third quarter sales forecast by about $40 million with its legacy business, clearly has its sights on a new revenue stream based partly on computing and software offerings. Just this week, it led an $8 million investment in Victoria, BC-based GenoLogics, a genomics software vendor. Dickinson says there will be more to come.

“It’s very important to deal with a customer challenge, and it’s well-recognized that bioinformatics is a major customer challenge,” Dickinson says. “It’s a space where only a very credible vendor can bring this to the table. If you move to the cloud, with all that data going up, and a company was to fail, you could lose your data. Think of how it builds customer confidence. The combination of Illumina scale, the resources we can put into security are very high. Somebody has to do this, and the logical company to do that is Illumina.”

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