Spiral Genetics, Started by UW Classmates, Looks to Crunch DNA Data in New Way

11/30/11Follow @xconomy

DNA data is piling up on servers and hard drives near you, and scientists are struggling to sort through it all as genome sequencing keeps getting faster and cheaper. Seattle-based Spiral Genetics is the latest startup in town with ambitions to help relieve some of the IT pain that biomedical scientists are feeling.

Spiral was founded in 2009 by a couple of students in a University of Washington-Bothell entrepreneurship class. Two years later, the company has introduced its first couple of commercial software programs, lined up critical support from Amazon’s cloud computing infrastructure, and signed up a handful of paying customers, including the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, BC.

It isn’t radically reinventing how researchers find the precious needles in the haystacks—disease-related genes. But the company is getting its start by bundling open-source programs that are currently available, and leveraging distributed computing power, in a way that can take genome analysis jobs down from several days to several hours. After toying with the idea of a consumer genetics-type of company like Mountain View, CA-based 23andMe, Spiral is now aspiring to compete with another big-idea Google Ventures-backed company in Mountain View—DNAnexus.

“It might sound cheesy, but I want to do something to heavily impact the world. We want to help reach that elusive goal of personalized medicine,” says co-founder and CEO Adina Mangubat.

The company is still very much in its infancy. Spiral Genetics got its start when Mangubat met with a classmate, Becky Drees, in a University of Washington-Bothell entrepreneurship class taught by Alan Leong. Drees, an experienced research scientist at the UW and the Institute for Systems Biology, had the idea of creating some kind of genetics analysis business. Mangubat was an undergraduate psychology major who realized she didn’t want to go to grad school in psychology, and needed to figure out what was next.

Spiral Genetics CEO Adina Mangubat

She was taken with the idea of a genetic analysis business, and helped flesh it out through their classwork. They had their eye on competing in a business plan competition. “I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we better win,’” Mangubat says.

They won, but that didn’t mean they had a real company yet. But by the time Mangubat graduated in June 2009, the recession was going strong. If starting a company was risky, Mangubat says she figured entering the job market was probably just as risky.

The idea for Spiral Genetics evolved from the original consumer-genetics play into something that helps address the DNA data pile-up that is vexing so many researchers. The new plan was put in place by about March 2010, and Mangubat and Drees enlisted support in crafting their algorithms from Jeremy Bruestle.

You can say the market terrain in this field is tough. Plenty of companies have tried and failed to get much traction in bioinformatics—including big players like Microsoft. Much of DNA analysis is … Next Page »

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