Geospiza Runs in the Black, as Scientists Turn to Software to Help Crunch Genomes

3/3/10Follow @xconomy

The faster and cheaper that gene sequencing gets, the better things start to look for Seattle-based Geospiza. This small angel-backed company has stuck to its guns for 13 years, many of them lean, arguing that biologists need better software to make sense of the digital mountains of DNA being created every day.

Geospiza—knock wood—has now won over enough customers that it is operating on a consistent cash-flow positive basis, says president Rob Arnold. It’s a modest milestone, but an important lesson in perseverance for a little operation with about 20 employees. Arnold says Geospiza has built a roster with “hundreds” of paying customers for its lab software and analysis products, including scientists at the Institute for Systems Biology and University of Washington, Harvard Medical School, Yale University, Children’s Hospital Boston, and the University of Florida.

“We’ve made enormous progress,” Arnold says. “We are able to financially power ourselves now.”

Gene sequencing has been on a torrid pace of innovation over the past few years, as the established toolmakers like Illumina, Life Technologies, and Roche have been racing to lower the cost of sequencing an entire human genome to as little as $10,000. Others, like Mountain View, CA-based Complete Genomics say they can do it for as little as $5,000. This is creating terabyte-size piles of digital data in the form of A, C, G, and T. Once those digits have been recorded from a biological sample, scientists need to be able to store, analyze, compare, and visualize the patterns on their computers before they can have a “Eureka” moment that might lead to a top-notch scientific paper or a medical insight.

The sequencing instruments themselves can cost as much as $500,000. So quite a few researchers over the years have figured they could get by on the cheap by dumping their data into old Microsoft Excel spreadsheets that were never designed for this kind of thing, or whipping up their own “home-brew” software for custom experiments.

Geospiza has long argued that it can do better. It now offers a Web-based product in which it charges $30,000 a year to provide its genomic data service to researchers, plus another $2,500 a year for each researcher who wants to analyze the data from the lab. The system is supported by Geospiza’s cloud computing infrastructure, or a cloud run by Amazon Web Services. That means the research lab doesn’t need to host the data on its own servers.

The big players in sequencing have traditionally concentrated on selling their sequencing tools, not software. But Geospiza has shown the toolmakers that computing matters … Next Page »

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