New Startup Becomes Airbnb For Gene Sequencers
Science has entered into a new realm, sitting somewhere between Uber and Airbnb. I can imagine that this wouldn’t have been your first guess, but it’s all down to the rise in demand for sequencing services.
This all came about last month, when cancer researcher Amit Verma found himself in a spot of bother, writes Wired. His lab at the Albery Einstein College of Medicine in New York had just received feedback on a new paper about how genes get turned on and off when healthy pancreas cells develop into tumours. The journal’s reviewers asked his team to do some additional experiments, including a type of whole-genome sequencing that reveals DNA modification patterns. But with only a few months to turn around the new analyses, the researchers didn’t have time to get on a waiting list for one of the specialised sequencing machines.
It was then, that one of Verma’s post-docs suggested they try something called Meenta – a new Boston-based startup billing itself as a cross between Airbnb and Uber for genetic sequencing. After logging into the app, and entering a few experimental parameters, they successfully found a machine a few states over ready for a job at a price they could afford. They quickly booked a lane, printed out a shipping label, and sent their cells out with the mail. After a few days, they planned to log on to Meenta’s cloud and retrieve their genetic data. “I bet it will cut our time to analysis in half,” said Verma.
Meenta is helping to overcome a number of issues that are currently being felt across the globe by scientists, it could be viewed as a type of informal sharing economy. Its algorithms match scientists with similar experiments and assign them to machines that will fill up the quickest. Both hosts and users are rated on timeliness and quality of samples and data to incentivise good behaviour. In addition, rather than sending an email and waiting for a quote, researchers can instantly book a sequencer lane right from the app.
“The fundamental problem of scaling personalised medicine is that the infrastructure for accessing these instruments doesn’t exist,” said Meenta CEO and co-founder, Gabor Bethlendy. “No one had bothered to do the simple hard work of mapping out where these instruments are. How are you going to put sequencing in the cloud if you don’t know where the damn things are?”
Right now, there are currently 3,000 sequencers in the U.S., ranging from $80,000 to $985,000 apiece, depending on the quality and amount of genetic data they can produce. It is no secret that the vast majority of them are made by San Diego-based Illumina. So far, Meenta has mapped about a third of them into a network of shared sequencing. Each host facility – a combination of universities, research hospitals, private institutions, and commercial companies – sets their own price. They can, however, change them at any time, to say throw a flash sale when they need to fill up a few lanes. Just like Uber and Airbnb, Meenta collects a small fee to broker each transaction.
Although an Illumina spokesman declined to comment on Meenta, Illumina is making moves to appeal to customers with smaller pockets and democratise access to its technology. But, Bethlendy has his sights set on more than just sequencing. His startup recently signed an agreement with HarkerBIO – a company that distinguishes the 3D structures of proteins for pharma companies – to add proteomics services to Meenta’s marketplace.
This is an exciting step toward creating entire virtual workflows for drug discovery and basic research.