George Church Startup Nebula Genomics Raises Seed Financing

August 30, 2018
George Church Startup Nebula Genomics Raises Seed Financing
Nebula Genomics, a provider of low-cost whole-genome sequencing of data that owners can store securely through blockchain technology, has raised $4.3M million in seed financing toward creating a trusted, secure, and decentralized marketplace for that information. [Source: © fotoliaxrender/Fotolia]

Alex Philippidis

Nebula Genomics, a provider of low-cost whole-genome sequencing of data that owners can store securely through blockchain technology, has raised $4.3M million in seed financing toward creating a trusted, secure, and decentralized marketplace for that information.

The company plans to connect that data marketplace to the Arvados open-source software platform managed by Veritas Genetics, a provider of whole genome sequencing and interpretation that like Nebula was co-founded by George Church, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School.

“What we’re trying to do is build a marketplace where individuals or institutional data owners—it doesn’t have to be a single person or single entity—can share their health data without ever giving up their health data,” Kamal Obbad, Nebula’s CEO and co-founder, told Clinical OMICs.

He said the company has had its marketplace under pilot status until now, with plans to launch some time in the next two months. Obbad plans a live demonstration on September 17 at the Heath 2.0 12th Annual Fall Conference, set for September 16-18 at the Santa Clara (CA) Convention Center

Nebula plans to offer whole genome sequencing for under $1,000, and exome sequencing for under $300, according to a whitepaper through which it announced its launch earlier this year. An updated whitepaper will be published soon in a peer-reviewed journal, according to the company.

Nebula plans to aggregate and store data provided by individuals and genomic databanks, which would be able through the company to control access to that information.

“Our thesis is that the personal genomics industry is in backwards right now,” said Obbad, a Harvard graduate and serial biotech entrepreneur who previously worked at Google. “You have consumers paying to get sequenced, and then you have that data being sold for effectively more than the consumers are even paying. This is leading to problems: Not a lot of people are doing sequencing. Not a lot of people are doing genotyping. The right incentives aren’t really there.”

To jumpstart the market for genome sequencing, he added, Nebula plans to lower its cost by getting users of the data—from biopharmas to researchers—to pay for access to the data. Nebula has partnerships set up with several biopharmas that Obbad would not identify, except to say they are “some pretty large pharma players that we haven’t announced publicly yet.”

Announcements of those partnerships are expected over the next month or two.

He cited growing interest by drug developers in genomic data—reflected in partnerships such as GlaxoSmithKline’s $300 million equity investment in 23andMe, an alliance intended to apply data toward identifying new drug targets, and thus speeding up development of new therapies for both companies.

Nebula said its model for a marketplace is not so much the GSK-23andMe partnership as it is the $50 million-plus consortium launched by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals with five biopharmas to speed up exome sequencing of all 500,000 people within the UK Biobank by three years. $50 million-plus consortium launched by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals with five biopharmas.

 

‘The Money Is There’

“That’s very interesting for us. We could provide easy data access for researchers, and we know the money is there,” Obbad said. “We know the appetite is there to actually pay for these types of data sets. For them (biopharmas), it’s not a cost issue. It’s more of an access issue.”

He added that the value of partnerships with biopharmas can be expected to grow with the volume of data made available: “As we build the database out, as we get more users, as we get more data online, more data being shared, you’ll see bigger and bigger deal flow.”

Data providers would buy from Nebula personal genome sequencing through company-generated “Nebula tokens,” which data buyers would also purchase from Nebula using legal tender to gain access to the data. The prices of the tokens—which have yet to be set—will decrease as DNA sequencing becomes cheaper, according to Nebula.

Buyers would purchase access to the data through “smart contracts” and can subsidize the sequencing cost of select individuals.

“Smart contracts provide a way to enforce certain rules that govern the entire network,” Obbad asserted. “Smart contracts will provide certain guarantees: If you provide this data, you earn this amount. That’s how data buyers will be acquiring datasets: Instead of having to go through years of regulatory issues and patient recruitment, they’re going to post smart contracts in network, then users can fulfill those requests for data.”

While the February whitepaper envisioned contracts being bought on the Etherum blockchain, Obbad said Nebula has since sought to simplify how users will purchase that access: “We’re not requiring users to have an Etherum wallet. We’re not requiring users to deal with all these barriers that you typically have to when working with a blockchain-based app or protocol. We’re making it as simple for users as possible. They’ll get a public key and a private key like you would with any blockchain wallet.

Nebula says the computational back-end of its data marketplace will be provided by Veritas’ Arvados platform, an open-source platform for big data management, storage and computation, specifically for health data and genomic data. Arvados now exceeds 20 petabytes of data, and is used globally by researchers, biopharmas, and research institutions.

The Arvados platform is designed to allows consented data to be queried regardless of where that data is located—a decentralized or federated system that according to Nebula will allow for storage and management of various data according to local rules and regulations, especially those that govern privacy and protection. Users can decide how they wish to make their data accessible, and how they wish to store their data, whether on their hard drives or on DropBox, Google Cloud, or Intex Cloud X3.

Nebula’s marketplace plans to leverage the platform so that individuals and institutions can exchange and trade access to the data while retaining the benefits of blockchain-based privacy and smart contracts.

Nebula announced its partnership with Veritas along with the completion of its seed financing Wednesday. Participating VC firms included Khosla Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, Fenbushi Capital, Mayfield, F-Prime Capital Partners, Great Point Ventures, Windham Venture Partners, Hemi Ventures, Mirae Asset, Hikma Ventures, and Heartbeat Labs.

Veritas offers consumers whole genome sequencing for $999. The company was co-founded a year earlier by Dr. Church and other researchers at the Personal Genome Project at Harvard Medical School, which he founded in 2005.

Obbad and Dr. Church co-founded Nebula along with Dennis Grishin, the company’s CSO and a Boehringer Ingelheim PhD Fellow in Genetics and Genomics at Harvard University.

“Our goal is to create a data flow that will accelerate medical research and catalyze a transformation of health care,” Grishin stated.