Civic Hacking


I recently watched Catherine Bracy's TED Talk on Civic Hacking. It’s an amazing way to empower citizens and an easy way to get involved in your community. Even better, it appeals to all ages, but especially the more apolitical set under 50. Despite the name, civic hacking requires no coding ability, only a desire to creatively solve problems. Check out the Code for America Brigades to learn more and get involved. I can’t wait for their map to be completely covered with pins! National Day of Civic Hacking is only a couple months away!

OneStart Americas Young Entrepreneur Bootcamp


“The most important connections will be with fellow entrepreneurs.” With these words from the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR) founder and CEO, Daniel Perez, the intense one day Entrepreneur Bootcamp for the 35 semi-finalists in the OneStart Americas life science business plan competition opened on Saturday, February 8th at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The Bootcamp, presented by OBR and SR One, initiated the mentoring component of the competition with experts in key areas of entrepreneurship presenting to the semi-finalists in the morning and then providing one-on-one mentoring sessions and pitch feedback in the afternoon. This formal program was interwoven with casual networking throughout the day to the benefit of all attendees.


Matt Maurer and Jordan Epstein of Stroll Health network with OBR volunteer Laura Sasportas

OneStart is the largest biotech business plan competition in the world. For both of its two concurrent competitions, OneStart Europe and OneStart Americas, teams of life science entrepreneurs under 36 years of age apply in one of four tracks: drug discovery, medical devices, diagnostics, or health information technology. Americas entrants, who retain all intellectual property, compete for $150,000, free lab space at QB3 in San Francisco for up to one year, and business and legal support. In January, the 35 semi-finalists in the Americas competition were announced and Saturday’s Bootcamp initiated two-months of intensive mentorship for these elite entrepreneurs involving venture capitalists, pharmaceutical executives, and other entrepreneurs as they develop a comprehensive business plan.

“Ideas are cheap, it’s all about execution.” - Drug Discovery Discussion Session

“Time is your greatest risk.” - Nassim Usman

Bootcamp opened with general comments from Daniel Perez; Matthew Foy, partner at SR One; and John Daley, Stanford law student and OBR organizer of OneStart Americas, and then immediately went to the nitty-gritty of life science entrepreneurship with a “State of the Industry” presentation from Tamara Rajah, a partner with McKinsey & Company. During her talk, Rajah stressed the need for founders to focus on the patient and to disrupt markets as a means to add value.


Thorsten Melcher presents to Bootcamp attendees

Thorsten Melcher of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and previously part of the “most successful biotech in Half Moon Bay,” followed up Rajah with a talk steeped in humor on “Building a Company”. Melcher cheekily apologized as he said, “I’m telling the stories in the German way, everything was horrible,” but the gravity of his advice to the eager audience was clear as he highlighted the need for the right people, the necessity of a network in fundraising, and the critical importance of execution. His sage advice on funding segued into Genentech Investment Director, Simon Greenwood’s, perspectives on raising capital. Greenwood focused on the need to create your own barriers to market entry and gave direct coaching on how to sell yourself to venture capitalists. During the question and answer, Jill Carroll, a partner at SR One, corroborated Greenwood’s advice and further emphasized the need to be first or best in class to get the dollars. Nassim Usman, CEO of Catalyst Biosciences, reinforced the timelines for funding and success introduced by Melcher and Greenwood saying, “Time is your greatest risk.” Usman was joined by Karl Handelsman, founder of Codon Capital, for a question and answer session on “Managing Failure and Risk”, where Handelsman summarized the key to successful risk management as, “Ask good questions, listen, and figure things out.”

In addition to the need to disrupt markets to add value, another theme of the day was the essentiality of the perfect pitch. Throughout the day investors, including Melcher, Handelsman, and Geenwood, put the pitch above all else, and “VCs don’t read” was heard several times, while  the value of a well-crafted executive summary was played down. Now enter the self-proclaimed, “deal killers of Silicon Valley,” Mike O’Donnell and Walter Wu of Morrison & Foerster. According to these two, lawyers do read and in their talk on “Corporate Structure and IP” they assert that as the people performing the due diligence required by venture capitalists, the greatest pitch may get you in the door, but a detailed written plan is imperative to getting the check.

“Don’t over invest in technology and under invest in biology.” - Drug Discovery Discussion Session


Entrepreneur panel of (from left) Foy, Daley, Perez, Iorns, Spellmeyer, Bethencourt, and Nag.

In the afternoon, audience participation drove a panel discussion on entrepreneurship including Elizabeth Iorns, cofounder and CEO of Science Exchange; David Spellmeyer, chief technology officer of Nodality; Ryan Bethencourt, CEO of Berkeley Biolabs; and Divya Nag, cofounder of Stem Cell Theranostics and founder of StartX Med. Topics included the value of accelerators, should you work with friends, how important is location, and balancing dilution with funding needs. When asked about operating in stealth mode, Bethencourt offered up the collaborative success story of Glowing Plant and Nag astutely asserted, “If you don’t share, you cut yourself off from being a better you.”


One-on-one mentoring sessions

The formal day concluded with discussion sessions in each of the four OneStart tracks: drug discovery, medical devices, diagnostics, and health information technology, followed by one-on-one mentoring sessions with successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and other experts. Each of the 35 semi-finalist teams practiced their pitch informally with a panel of investors and received immediate feedback.

“If you don’t share, you cut yourself off from being a better you.” - Divya Nag

“The most important connections will be with fellow entrepreneurs.” - Daniel Perez


Afternoon networking refreshments

Between sessions and during lunch, participants, speakers, mentors, and organizers ignored the rain and unusually cold Bay Area day to mingle outside sharing their ideas, commiserating over failures, cheering on successes, and forming important relationships. The networking relaxed when Bootcamp wrapped up at The Patio in Palo Alto. The response from attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Semi-finalists Jeni Lee of ViVita Technologies Inc. and Denise Lee of EpiBiome were impressed with the caliber of ideas and variety of people attending Bootcamp. They appreciated the opportunity to meet directly with investors and other entrepreneurs. PhD student, Jordan Despanie of Qairos Biopharmaceutics, enjoyed the opportunity to get advice on balancing his research with entrepreneurship and still making time for his hobby, screenwriting. Several attendees, like Luke Smith of Imani Health,  said they benefited from making contacts in the Bay Area even for things as routine as help finding housing.  

“Be prepared for the most scary and exciting time of your professional life.” - Thorsten Melcher

For the next two months, the teams will work intensively with their assigned mentor and new contacts to develop business plans. In May, the winning team will be selected from a pool of ten finalists based on criteria including innovation, impact to patient health, and quality of the business plan. It is an exciting time for these young thought leaders and exciting to get a glimpse of the future innovators of biotech.    


Aaron Hammach and Denise Lee of EpiBiome with Jeni Lee and Maelene Wong of ViVita

This article was originally written for the OBR Review and can be found here

Science writing tips from former Nature editors and OBR


          Minard’s graphic of Napolean’s Russian Campaign. Purported to be near perfect. 

Why is a blog post on a scientific writing workshop so difficult to write? Perhaps it’s the vision of a reader slowly nodding with a slight smirk thinking, “I love the author’s ironic inclusion of mistakes in a post of pointers,” when in truth, I’m not that witty? Publicly posting writing of any kind, scientific or personal, makes the author vulnerable. Writing on writing tips only exposes the author more.

With that introduction I have already ignored several of the tips presented by Richard Gallagher and Natalie Dewitt to 50 graduate students and postdocs eager to improve their science writing skills Monday February 24th at the University of California, San Francisco. The event was hosted by Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable and moderated by Ben Cohn. Below are some of the tips from Gallagher and Dewitt, who are the founders of Accendo Editing and former editors at Nature.


Know your audience

Employ the following advice always keeping your audience in mind.


Avoid clichés, colons, incorporation of acronyms into words, and inform.

In my first conference abstract of graduate school I broke two of the rules above with: “Forging a Genetic Tool: The Quest to Increase Homologous Recombination Efficiency in Toxoplasma gondii”. My graduate lab loved catchy titles. Fortunately, my “forging a genetic tool” isn’t overly cliché, returning few relevant Google results. On the other hand, Dewitt’s example of “mending broken hearts stem cells” returns over 90,000 results!


Colons are a technical issue as they interfere with some search engines and importing titles with colons can result in weird changes to the title structure.

The incorporation of acronyms into words like “Grb-ing receptor activation by the tail” experiences a love/hate reaction from readers. Is a catchy title worth decreasing readership over or increasing criticism from irritated readers? 

Acronym incorporation can also be at the expense of informing your audience.  Titles like “Death by Numbers” and “An Open and Shut Case” provide no indication of an article’s content and may be overlooked.


Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Graphics are important. Tell a story and don’t show off!

Anglo-Saxon language is the language of the people and the language of short words. It is concise and sharp. Anglo-Saxon dialect selects “use” over “utilize”, “by” over “via”, and “help” over “facilitate” as pointed out by Dewitt. Carl Zimmer’s “The Index of Banned Words (The Continually Updated Edition)” is helpful for eliminating superfluous language as well. Short sentences and short paragraphs will follow suit as you are mindful of clarity in your writing.

Well-crafted graphics can say more in a small space than words can in an equivalent space.

The Inverted Pyramid of News Writing is an example of such a graphic and it lays out a good method for telling a story in science writing. If your writing doesn’t flow and tell a clear story you will lose or confuse your readers.


If you stick to short words, sentences, and paragraphs you will avoid the showy vocabulary or sentence structure better suited for Victorian fiction. Another trap scientists writing about science fall into is the need to prove their expertise through excessive detail. Stick to only what is necessary for the audience. If this pains you, try adding links for additional reading to the end of an article.

Minimize bias

Include alternative viewpoints and quotes from external experts and minimize hype.

Often I lazily overlook the inclusion of alternative viewpoints and quotes from people not involved in the subject of an article. For instance, in my blog on contract research organizations (CROs) I did not include the drawbacks of CROs. In my article on Mundipharma I neglected to include quotes from people outside of the patent acquisition deal. Such inclusions would strengthen the articles.

Odds are you are not working for Fox News so avoid the impulse to tell us how kittens are unwittingly killing us. Verify the hype surrounding novel discoveries through quotes from outside sources before reporting it. Excessive hype will only decrease clarity and perceived competency.


Gotta have soul.

Gallagher defines the objective of science writing as, “To communicate knowledge that has been gained through scientific investigation in an accurate, engaging, and instructive fashion.” Accurate and instructive are easy enough for a diligent, detailed, and informed scientist but engaging is an art and something with which I struggle. The advice from Gallagher on adding soul into your science writing and keeping it vibrant is to include the human aspect of science. Did a novel discovery come about because of a researcher’s personal experience?  Who will personally be affected by a new regulation and can you include a quote from them?

Finally, a “hook” to bring readers in, perhaps by drawing a parallel to something universal or emphasizing the broad impact of your subject, is helpful.  Be careful with metaphors, though. See Philip Ball’s Nature article “A metaphor too far”.

Social media

Blogs, Twitter, and social media matter.

If you aspire to be a science writer you need to show an active interest and have an accessible example of your work. A blog meets both of those needs.

An active Twitter feed is equally valuable for showing your interests to potential employers in any field. Carol Stephen’s post “Twitter by the Numbers” provides some good guidance on how to manage your following to followed ratio. I use Twitter as a professional tool and manage my following numbers by not following my Facebook friends unless they maintain an active scientific/professional presence on Twitter. I also keep my tweets inline with my resumé and focus on professional development or interests listed on LinkedIn. As an engineer, I love congruence and clarity so keeping everything in my network reflective of and supportive of each branch is important.

And finally The Hook:

Why should busy scientists care about science writing and invest the time in improving? An article by Andrew Balas in the Journal of American Medical Informatics Association identifies the lag between significant discoveries in the lab and adoption into routine patient care as 17 years on average. Much of the burden to accelerate adoption falls on the discoverers and their colleagues to spread the information rapidly to a broad audience. If all scientists put forth the effort to improve their scientific communication and invest time in using instantaneous tools like social media, how much faster could people’s lives be impacted? This is why scientists should care. 

The Sloth Hair Panacea


                 Baby sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica

It is always exciting when seemingly disparate personal passions intersect not only beautifully, but also beneficially. I knew it was only a matter of time before my favorite animal came together with my vocation in such harmony. On January 15, 2014 PLOS ONE published the paper “Sloth Hair as a Novel Source of Fungi with Potent Anti-Parasitic, Anti-Cancer and Anti-Bacterial Bioactivity”. Aside from giving sloths some well-deserved street cred in the research world, this paper identifies new fungi and one with potentially novel antibacterial mechanisms.

The study focuses on the three-fingered sloth (Bradypus variegatus). “Three-fingered sloth” is the updated common name from “three-toed sloth” since all sloths have three-toes, including two-fingered sloths (Choloepus didactylus or hoffmanni). Disappointingly the authors’ describe the three-fingered sloth as an, “arboreal mammal commonly found in the lowland tropical forests of Central America.” Such a terse description does little justice to this amazing animal, but I understand that the word limit constraints of most journals would make it difficult to properly describe the sloth. In turn, I will limit myself here and refer readers to the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica to learn more about both three- and two-fingered sloths. The Sanctuary was officially founded in 1997 as the first sloth rescue center and research institute in the world. In 2010, I volunteered there for two months, learning about and caring for the sloths and leading tours of the facility.


                   Three-fingered sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica

In addition to sloths, I am passionate about increasing both basic and therapeutic research into the neglected world of fungi (“Focus on Fungi”, August 19th, 2013) and into the development of novel antibiotics (“Bacteria: from gut to lab to disease”, August 27th, 2013). It is estimated that there are 5 million fungal species on earth, but only 100,000 of these species have been described (Blackwell M., 2011) and a 2013 review in the Annals of Clinical Microbiology and Antimicrobials highlights the need for antibiotics and the tedious progress of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s (IDSA) 10x’20 Initiative to develop ten new antibiotics by 2020. Fungi are a natural source of antibiotics, including the first antibiotic, penicillin, and cephalosporins. The identification and characterization of potentially millions of fungal species could lead to unimaginable options for the development of antibiotics.

But why sloth hair; what makes it so special (besides the fact that it is on a sloth)? The average human skin microbiome is made up of <0.01 percent fungi. The average three-fingered sloth hair microbiome is made up of 8 percent fungi! Therefore, sloth hair provides an easily accessible rich source of mammal-associated fungi. Easily accessible because, let’s be honest, it isn’t hard to catch a three-fingered sloth (in a tree here, and even slower on the ground here).

In this paper, first author Sarah Higginbotham of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Republic of Panama, in collaboration with corresponding author, Elizabeth Arnold of the University of Arizona, Tucson, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Instituto de Investigaciones Científicas y Servicios de Alta Tecnología, Republic of Panama, isolated 84 fungal strains from the hair of three-fingered sloths in Soberanía National Park in Panama. Four of these isolated species are in understudied or potentially novel groups. The authors then cultured several of these fungal stains and tested their activity against parasites and cancer. 2.5 percent of the culture species are highly active against Plasmodium falciparum, the causative agent of malaria; 12.9 percent are highly active against the etiological agent of Chagas disease, Trypanosoma cruzi; and 20.6 percent are highly active against human breast cancer MCF-7 cells. Intriguingly, there is limited overlap of active strains between the tested pathologies. Furthermore, some of the families of these fungi have established activity against malaria and cancer but the anti-trypanosomal activity is novel.

To test the antibacterial activity of the fungal strains they used BioMAP and examined activity against 15 human pathogenic bacteria. Twenty of the isolated fungi had activity against at least one pathogen and the fungi were more active against Gram-positive than Gram-negative bacteria. Of the fungal strains, F4807, showed activity against Gram-negative bacteria. Intriguingly, the bioactivity profile of F4807 does not match any known antibiotic classes previously tested by BioMAP. This identification of a potential novel mode of action could be a breakthrough for fighting Gram-negative multidrug-resistant bacteria. Currently the majority of research is focused on Gram-positive methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureaus, or MRSA.

Hopefully, this paper will catch the eye of mycologists, bacteriologists, and oncologists and the sloth’s value to the rest of the world will finally be accepted and exulted. That’s the world I want to live in.


                 Two-fingered sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica

CRO Event: What contract research means to science and biotech

Images by Li Tai Fang

Contract research organizations (CROs) are becoming an integral part of the biotech research and development landscape, especially as big pharma continues to restructure its model for early stage discovery (January 16thpost), and everyone is taking this exploding market seriously.  However, the more we hear “CRO” the more confused some of us are as to what constitutes a CRO and how CROs fit into the research-sphere.  On Monday, January 27th, the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR) Bay Area Chapter hosted “CROs: Partners and Disruptors in Drug Discovery” at the University of California, San Francisco to clarify some of this confusion.

An audience of nearly 200 registered attendees gathered to actively interact with a panel of CRO experts including Ken Meek, director of sales and marketing at Aragen Bioscience; Joe Francisco, Senior Client Services Scientist at Charles River Laboratories; Elizabeth Iorns, cofounder and CEO of Science Exchange; Jesse McGreivy, Chief Medical Officer at Pharmacyclics; and Kitty Yale, Senior Director at Gilead Sciences, Inc. The panel began by summarizing CROs as any entity willing to perform research for a second party for pay. The research includes everything from basic discovery to clinical trials. The panelists emphasized the importance of CROs to the biotech industry at all levels, but particularly startups and early stage ventures. David Rabuka, founder of Redwood Bioscience, did not attend the event but commented prior to his talk at the BioScience Forum event later in the week that CROs are essential to minimizing research costs and keeping startups viable. For the remainder of the organized discussion, panel members fielded questions from attendees including what are the drivers for the growth of CROs, of which increased regulatory challenges topped the list, and how is the perception of PhD scientists accepting jobs with CROs improving as CROs become more common.

As outsourcing increases, established CROs are growing to meet rising demand. Charles River, founded in 1947 on the shores of the Charles River in Boston as a provider of lab animals, has grown to locations in 14 countries, 25 locations in the US alone, offering services from toxicology to pre-clinical services. In addition, larger companies looking to expand their service portfolio are rapidly acquiring smaller providers. Aragen’s 50 or so employees are about to reach a larger market as Aragen’s acquisition by GVK BIO, an India-based CRO, was announced on January 29th. One attendee, perhaps with entrepreneurship on his mind, inquired what is missing in the enormous, but potentially crowded, CRO space? All the panelists agreed that providers of extremely specialized services are difficult to find. This is where the highly specialized research of academic labs becomes a commodity and Science Exchange is working to fill this need. Science Exchange puts consumers in touch with registered contract research providers. According to CEO Dr Iorns, several of the registered providers are academic labs looking to raise money through offering their niche services. Academic labs are realizing this is a perfect platform for fundraising to compensate for the deficits created by reductions in traditional funding. Furthermore, acting as a CRO avoids the complications surrounding crowdsourcing the biological sciences.

After the panel discussion, Sajith Wickramasekara, founder of Benchling, commented, “The increasing use of CROs by researchers highlights a greater trend in life science: an industry that’s embracing collaboration and specialization.” With greater collaboration comes the need for more formal data organization and sharing between team members. Benchling, which provides a cloud-based forum for analyzing and sharing DNA sequences and molecular biology tools is one of many startups capitalizing on these needs.

During the post-panel networking session, attendees, including a diverse mix of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and industry scientists, enjoyed food and drinks while making new connections. Benjamin Gaub, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley working to restore vision in blind animals through retinal reanimation as well as developing echolocation devices for the blind, appreciated the time as an opportunity to, “expand my network and get some exposure to industry.” It may be fair to assert that by brining people together for these events, OBR is providing a CRO-like service for networking. 

For more information on upcoming OBR events visit our site here

Opportunities Lost: Undergraduates start building your network!


Earlier this month my alma mater, the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, posted “2013: A Year of Milestones” and two of the twelve milestones involved my undergraduate research advisors. My “hey I know those guys” excitement was abruptly replaced with a sense of loss. I had been given a golden opportunity in college to form a relationship with these two, but lacked the foresight to take advantage.

In my final two years of undergrad I struggled with the same question that all undergrads face, “What am I going to do?” The standard plan amongst my peers was to enter the sexy world of oil refining and specialty chemicals manufacturing and make lots of money to taunt our <insert esoteric liberal arts field> majoring friends with as they moved home with mom and dad. However, upon experiencing the specialty chemical manufacturing industry first hand as a summer intern with Albemarle, I started to question the plan and went back to school ready to give a life of research a try. (First aside: a life of research is esoteric and may lead to moving home with mom and dad too. Second aside: esoteric liberal arts majors, your network will be your best hope to avoid moving home!)

The two labs I found my way into were, first, the lab of Dr C. Grant Willson where I completed a year of research on base quenchers in semiconductor photoresist materials for my Plan II honors thesis, and second, the lab of Dr Nicholas Peppas where my research on porous polymer biomaterials became my senior engineering project. Both of these renowned researchers have won a dizzying number of awards and have produced an insane body of research, but, most importantly, they are both exemplary mentors. Looking back, through the eyes of a PhD, the amount of respect their graduate students had, and routinely expressed, for these two men is rare in the academic research. How did I take advantage of these priceless opportunities? I didn’t, not at all.

I saw Dr Willson frequently and would freeze and panic every time. I was completely incapable of forming a relationship.  Back then even the most approachable faculty members were intimidating figures of genius and authority and who was I to waste their time? In addition to the fear, part of it could have been the arrogance of youth (I don’t need anyone’s help to succeed), and part of it could have been laziness (it’s hard and I don’t have time to invest in this right now), but whatever the reasons, I did nothing to foster relationships and, when I left the labs, I did nothing to maintain the connections.

Equally riveting image from my senior project. There should be holes. There are no holes. 

In 2013, Dr Willson was awarded the Japan Prize, the engineering equivalent of a Nobel Prize, and Dr Peppas was honored with the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) highest award, the Excellence in Engineering Education Award. When I saw these announcements I was filled with pride for having been briefly associated with both these individuals, but the pride was quickly replaced with great regret at having missed my opportunity to develop a lasting relationship with either one. 

The moral, undergraduates, is build your network now! Take off the blinders of youth and look around, overcome any arrogance, any laziness, and be bold. Soon you will want to enter the work force or graduate school and both will require letters of recommendation. Who better to write them than faculty who can cite specific examples of your exceptional talent? Once at work or in graduate school, mentorship will instantly become crucial to your career. Faculty, postdocs, and graduate students want to help you, they want to form relationships with you, and they want you to succeed. It gets lonely holding office hours with yourself. I get excited every time I hear from one of the undergraduates I mentored at Boston College and would go above and beyond to help them succeed. Learn from my mistakes and go forth and conquer! 

Illumina breaks the $1,000 genome barrier

(This blog post was first published on Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable Review, January 14, 2014)


Move aside 23andMe: why spend $99 for a partial genetic profile of currently available disease-associated genes if $1,000 buys your entire genome? On January 14th Illumina, Inc. announced they have created a system to sequence an entire human genome for $1,000. The $1,000 genome has been the carrot on a stick for the DNA sequencing industry for more than a decade and Illumina’s CEO, Jay Flatley, likens the achievement to the breaking of the sound barrier in this statement in the company’s press release:

"With the HiSeqX Ten, we’re delivering the $1,000 genome, reshaping the economics and scale of human genome sequencing, and redefining the possibilities for population-level studies in shaping the future of healthcare. The ability to explore the human genome on this scale will bring the study of cancer and complex diseases to a new level. Breaking the “sound barrier” of human genetics not only pushes us through a psychological milestone, it enables projects of unprecedented scale. We are excited to see what lies on the other side."

In less than a decade, the price of genome sequencing has gone from $250,000 to $1,000. At this rate, DNA sequencing technology is outpacing Moore’s Law, the governing idea in computer processing that transistor number and, thus, speed double every two years. The breakthrough machine, called HiSeqX Ten, is actually a collection of ten machines with a price tag of $10 million. The collaborative machines can produce “factory scale” sequencing, promising tens of thousands of human genomes per year per lab. The HiSeqX Ten improves upon the currently available HiSeq® 2500 and remains based on Illumina SBS technology. To attain the increase in throughput, Illumina engineered patterned flow cells with billions of nanowells and developed novel, speedier chemistry. This results in a 10x increase in throughput over the HiSeq® 2500.

With the January 14th announcement, Illumina trumped competitors like Pacific Biosciences and Life Technologies, which are also developing faster and cheaper sequencing technologies. Illumina claims the win by calculating the $1,000 per genome cost including instrument depreciation, DNA extraction, library preparation, and estimated labor. This estimation has met with some skepticism but Mick Watson provides a quick math check in a recent blog post that supports Illumina’s assertion.

With a $10 million price tag, the system itself remains out of reach for most institutions, but Macrogen in Seoul, South Korea; The Harvard-MIT Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA; and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia have already purchased systems. The challenge now falls on biomedical researchers to effectively manage the heaps of data that will be generated and to efficiently apply the data to tangible disease research. Foundation Medicine is already planning to use HiSeqX Ten in oncology studies to develop better cancer treatments and Regeneron has partnered with Geisinger Health System to apply the data to improved drug discovery. In general, the implications of a $1,000 genome on the trend toward personalized medicine is generating excitement across the life science industry. Eric Lander, director of The Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, summarized the impact of this technology with, “Over the next few years, we have an opportunity to learn as much about the genetics of human disease as we have learned in the history of medicine.”

Fortunately for companies like 23andMe, the $1,000 genome for the consumer is still some time in the future once provider mark-up and the cost of external sequence analysis and interpretation are taken into account. However, with the current pace of advancement the individual consumer will not have to wait long. 

The Extinction of Big Pharma Discovery Research

Historically, a PhD biologist leaving academia for industry was expected to send their resume to the large pharmaceutical companies and wait for the storied labs of Merck or Pfizer to decide they needed an expert in their niche field. Today this option is going the way of the dinosaurs as big pharma opts to outsource their discovery research to smaller, external labs and to reallocate their research dollars to innovation hubs. These centers, strategically positioned in technology hotbeds like Silicon Valley, Boston, and Shanghai, seek to identify research, both early- and late-stage, for licensing or acquisition. Most recently Merck announced their intention to followed Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and GlaxoSmithKline down this path as covered in my January 10th Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable Newsflash here.

Instead of lamenting the loss of the behemoth pharmaceutical research machine, we should rejoice in the shifting focus to smaller startups that offer PhD scientists more research freedom and allow young scientists to take an active role in the future of the organization; making them more than a pipetting, replaceable cog tethered to a lab bench. However, this paradigm shift to entrepreneurship does come with the disadvantages of lower salaries and less job security, but the opportunities to grow laterally and to find research that engenders passion by choosing from the diverse startup landscape compensates for these losses. Of course the issue of low funding for discovery stage biotech entrepreneurs remains, but perhaps continued change at the top of the foodchain will lead to increased support for early-stage ideas. It is an exciting time in biotech and an exciting time to be a scientist.