Disruption of the genomic data industry is imminent, and the process has already begun.
Blockchain technology is ushering in a new era of startups aiming to disrupt the genomic data industry which has been tightly controlled by a small group of large DNA testing companies and big pharma research labs. U.S. based, EncrypGen was first to launch and, at the time of this writing, is furthest along, but they have opened the door to a host of others which have followed with their own missions to smash the established model and market.
Ethics, ownership, data privacy, data security, and a desire to make a broader range of DNA data sets available to a larger group of researchers are all parts of the mission to advance scientific research at a faster and somewhat lower cost than the current norm in the genomic data industry. Collectively, these companies understand the huge advantages that blockchain has over traditional methods of storing and transferring genomic data.
As such, huge strides have been made to ensure that this development becomes a mainstay within the genomic data industry.
EncrypGen and its fellow genomic data startups each have different approaches to disrupting the DNA data business, but each bring another layer of validation to the use of blockchain and the need to reshape the genomic data industry.
Below, we explore the companies leading the way to improve global genomics.
Co-Founded and launched in 2017 by Dr. David Koepsell, an ethicist, attorney and author who argued against corporate gene patenting in a Supreme Court amicus brief and other venues, and won. His Co-Founder and wife, Dr. Vanessa Gonzalez Covarrubias, is a pharmacogenomic researcher who has been published in numerous journals. Of the handful of startups entering the space, EncrypGen is furthest along in terms of product development and has already begun putting partnerships in place to have the world’s first genomic data marketplace up and running before the end of the year.
EncrypGen’s blockchain, dubbed the Gene-Chain, has already launched and currently allows users to store their data and fill out a basic profile. Ultimately, they’ll be able to sell and send their data easily and securely in a tokenized marketplace on the Gene-Chain.
Users are in complete control of if and how their genomic data is shared, including who they want to share it with and how much for, unlike with traditional genomic data sharing models where the testing companies like 23andme and AncestryDNA, simply sell their customer’s DNA data for hundreds, sometimes even tens of thousands of dollars without the individual data owner receiving a dime. Private keys, held only by the owner ensures data isn’t shared without the owner’s permission, and smart contracts ensure that shared data is only used by its intended recipient. The blockchain uses variable IDs and digital keys to ratify each transaction, delivering an unmatched transparency and immutability. De Identified genomic data is bought and sold using EncrypGen’s $DNA tokens, a cryptocurrency available on a number of international exchanges.
If an individual chooses to make their anonymized data available for researchers through EncrypGen’s Genomic Data Marketplace, those transactions are handled directly between the buyer and seller.
In EncrypGen’s model, users can also use DNA tokens to buy DNA related products and services like DNA testing kits, genome sequencing and healthcare data management with partners like Codigo46, HealthWizz and others which Koepsell expects to announce soon.
Nebula Genomics was launched in February 2018 by George Church, who published the first direct genomic sequencing method in 1984, and launched the Personal Genome Project in 2005. This non-profit company has since gathered genomic data from over 10,000 volunteers. Church’s work has contributed to most major next-generation DNA sequencing developments.
Upon the foundation of his company, he claimed that blockchain was creating “a genomic data market worth billions of dollars.”
When asked by Science Mag about the difference between Nebula and its competitors, Church said that each company tended to specialize either in genomics or blockchain. Nebula has teamed up with blockchain experts Veritas in order to create the dream team, he said. Nebula has also teamed up with Enigma, which specializes in blockchain privacy.
Nebula co-founder Dennis Greshin added that they see other companies trying to add genomic data to the blockchain as collaborators, not competitors, with each party having the potential to learn from each other. This is a sentiment EncrypGen CEO, David Koepsell wholeheartedly agrees with.
LunaDNA markets itself as the world’s first community-owned genomic and medical research database.
It’s the only blockchain company in this niche launched as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC), meaning the greater public good is officially a key part of its mission, although one could argue that all of them are doing so for the benefit of medical research and personal data privacy.
Similarly to EncrypGen, LunaDNA will allow individuals to upload their genetic information and researchers who want to access it will pay for it with the cryptocurrency.
In May 2018, the company announced that they had secured funding to the tune of the $4 million, including key contributions from investors such as Illumina Ventures and Arch Venture Partners. These two venture capital companies pledged money towards the next-stage development of the LunaDNA platform.
Longenesis is a Hong Kong-based partnership between Insilico Medicine and the Bitfury Group, which makes blockchain platforms for the exchange of health data. Their platform will allow people to upload and trade all kinds of medical data, including selfies, lab tests, and genomes. Medical researchers of all kinds can buy this data on the blockchain. The company’s official website says its aim is to “improve human performance, extend life, prevent disease and make all people wealthier.”
People can earn a cryptocurrency called LifePounds in exchange for their data. The company’s co-founders believe those getting involved will be able to earn regular payments through their platform and even have gone as far as predicting that it could be the solution that provides a universal basic income around the world.
Insilico founder Alex Zhavoronkov said: “It’s difficult to predict, but I think if users give blood samples, images, weekly transcripts, you’ll probably be able to raise a basic income base.” Critics think that’s a lofty claim considering the fact that the cost of DNA testing is dropping, which in turn is expected to make more data available to researchers at a lower cost. Nonetheless, the more valuable the data, the more researchers will be expected to pay.
In addition this blockchain-based marketplace of health data, Longenesis also hopes to launch a ‘Data Economics Research Institute’ to help researchers make use of the different types of data available on the platform.
March 15th, Longenesis announced a partnership with fellow startup Nebula Genomics to apply artificial intelligence and blockchain technology to develop a platform for individuals and large data providers to store, manage, exchange, and profit from genomic and other types of clinical data. Professor George Church, co-founder of Nebula said, “Longenesis has built a similar platform that instead focuses on longitudinal health data, so our platforms complement one another very well.”
How will this new genomic data industry ultimately take shape?
It’s clear that these companies can learn from each other to make genomic data storage and sharing easier, safer, and more profitable. As is common in the world of startups, some companies succeed, some will fail, while others may merge or be acquired. The Longenesis – Nebula Genomics partnership certainly could lend itself to the latter and begs the question of whether their partnership will require customers to use LifePounds, Nebula tokens or allow both. For that matter, will all of the companies attempting to create a genomic data marketplace operate autonomous ecosystems or might they link their networks, utilize each other’s cryptocurrencies interchangeably at market price, or might they all eventually adopt one digital currency to be the official currency for all data transactions in the genomic data industry? At this stage, it’s certainly too early to tell, but one thing is for certain, having a large and diverse number of DNA profiles available for researchers is a top priority for all of them and regardless of what stage their product development teams are in, the race for data is on.