A little company on Vancouver Island has its sights set on one of the big challenges of the day in healthcare software. It is trying to piece together the vast puzzle of data on human health—everything from patient medical records, tissue or blood sample readings from the lab, and genomic data—and package it all in a coherent way so biologists see patterns they might otherwise never see.
The company, Victoria, BC-based GenoLogics, has been on my list to check on since February, when it raised $5 million in venture capital from Kirkland, WA-based OVP Venture Partners and a pair of Vancouver, BC-based firms—GrowthWorks Capital and Yaletown Venture Partners. I got an update on the company’s progress over the phone from CEO Michael Ball.
The challenge here would be hard to overstate. All of the data GenoLogics has in mind is stored at different institutions, in different proprietary formats, without obvious ways to link them into a coherent whole. And GenoLogics certainly isn’t the only company trying to solve this problem, or parts of it: Microsoft has recently given this a shot with its Amalga program, designed to get the typical 80 different hospital IT systems to talk to each other, and it has followed that up recently by rolling out Amalga Life Sciences, a program it hopes will do the same for biologists’ labs. Even as cheaper genome sequencing leads to great volumes piling up in hard drives, many biologists continue to be notoriously slow adopters of new IT programs, clinging to their homemade programs, or outdated versions of Excel spreadsheets that were never made to help show patterns in vast data sets like this.
It’s little wonder that drugmakers still struggle to improve on a 90 percent failure rate for drugs that enter clinical trials, and that it takes more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to develope every new one. Some top biologists, like Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology, have been seeking ways to find clues in those medical records, blood samples, lifestyle questionnaires, and genomic readouts that might help drugmakers predict which patients will be helped by a drug, and which won’t.
That’s the opening that GenoLogics hopes to exploit, by selling its product to Big Pharma and biotech companies that desperately need to improve their batting average in product development.
“It’s clear to everybody now that the next Lipitor mass market drug won’t happen, and now you’re going to have to target subsets of the population to get through the FDA,” Ball says. “We find that the paradigm is changing.”
Some of this may be wishful thinking, because at least on my radar there are a lot more companies that aspire to market drugs across broad patient populations than there are companies that zero in on narrowly customized drugs to fit patients with certain genotypes—like Genentech’s trastuzumab (Herceptin) for about one-fourth of breast cancer patients.
But GenoLogics appears to have some momentum behind it. The company was founded in 2001 based on technology developed by James DeGreef at the University of Victoria. It brought its first product to the market in 2004, and has raised $17.5 million in venture financing since 2005, Ball says. GenoLogics now has about 60 customers using its technology, including Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. It also has a group of top partners in the genome sequencing business—Illumina, Roche, and Life Technologies. The company has 75 employees, with about 55 at its Victoria headquarters, and the rest at field sales offices in the U.S. and Europe, Ball says. He wouldn’t disclose the company’s annual revenues or whether it is profitable.
The company got its start with software to help researchers better analyze all the data coming from the genomics revolution. GenoLogics has widened its scope since then to make software that captures all kinds of other data—from blood samples in labs, electronic medical histories, and questionnaires on diet and lifestyle, to help paint a more holistic picture for biologists really trying to understand the complex interplay of genetics and environmental factors that add up to disease. “The problem with the data is it’s all scattered,” Ball says.
The main barrier to adoption for this technology isn’t really about beating competitors, and more about persuading researchers they can’t solve this problem on their own. “People tend to think they need to build something themselves because their problem is unique,” Ball says. Still, GenoLogics does run into competitors that it says offer products with more narrow focus, like Seattle-based Geospiza, which makes software for genomic analysis.
I wondered if it might seem difficult for this company to carry on this kind of complex bio-IT work in a city like Victoria, BC. It’s not much of an issue as the company has grown to build sales offices in major cities around the world, where it can be close to customers, Ball says. He didn’t make it sound like the company is considering a move—Victoria is where the technology comes from, and the people who got it started like living there. “It’s not exactly a mecca for biotech,” Ball admits. “It’s not the most convenient from a travel standpoint, but it has a great lifestyle.”
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