Genomics Startup Emerges From Stealth Mode By Leading Harvard Geneticist
Published: Feb 09, 2018 By Mark Terry
Nebula Genomics was founded by Harvard geneticist George Church, a PhD student, Dennis Grishin, and Harvard graduate and entrepreneur Kamal Obbad. Mirza Cifric, chief executive officer of Veritas Genetics, is a founding advisor. Which is just about the only thing that’s typical for this biotech startup.
Before explaining what Nebula plans to do, you have to understand that when individuals take a DNA test through companies like 23andMe, Helix, or Ancestry.com, the consumer doesn’t own the genetic data, the company doing the test does. When biopharma companies need large genomic data sets, they generally buy the data from these companies or academic institutions.
Nebula Genomics wants to skip a step. It plans to offer inexpensive genetic testing, but allow the consumer to own their own genetic data and, as a result, be able to sell it to whoever they want to—probably pharmaceutical companies.
This isn’t a cash business. Nebula plans to use its own cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, only an in-house cryptocurrency. It would be dubbed Nebula tokens.
“The pitch to the average person is that you’re not just monetizing your genetic data,” Obbad told Technology Review. “We’re also going to provide you with insights, similar to what 23andMe and Ancestry.com do.”
Nebula would utilize blockchain, the technology that supports cryptocurrency transactions like Bitcoin.
“It’s a new approach to challenges of genomics, including sequencing costs, genetic data protection, data management, and genomics big data,” Church told STAT News. “We have the initial $600,000 investment that we sought,” from an angel investor. Grishin added that by the end of the week, the company expects to have raised an additional $1 million.
(They didn’t say whether the funds were in bitcoins or real money.)
The company’s plans are laid out in a white paper. Veritas will do the actual sequencing. Veritas was also co-founded by Church. Amber Tong, with Endpoints News, writes, “The payment is where it gets fuzzy. The idea is customers would pay for the sequencing data with Nebula tokens, its in-house cryptocurrency, which would be sold to pharma companies for cash. The tokens then circulate back to the customers as pharma companies use them to pay for personal data. It’s unclear how the customers would get the tokens in the first place; whether tokens would be of any value to someone who’s already had their genome sequenced also remains a question.”
Grishin told STAT, “We are not announcing any token sale at the moment. A token is necessary for the functionality of our protocol, but we have not decided yet how they will be distributed.”
Nebula’s business model appears to be to convince consumers to spend somewhere under $1,000 (in real money, presumably) to Nebula, who will have Veritas sequence their genome. Veritas will then provide the consumer with their genomic sequence and some health-related analysis. Biopharma companies can then “borrow” that data shared by the consumers, who will remain anonymous. The buyers, however, will be completely transparent. It’ll all be secured by blockchain.
As mentioned earlier, this is where it becomes less clear—how does the consumer use the Nebula tokens to actually buy something. Unless the consumer is already buying into (so to speak) the concept of cryptocurrencies, it’s a likely roadblock to broad consumer use.
Other companies currently using similar approaches include Luna DNA, a San Diego startup founded by former Illumina executives, which pays customers in Luna coins. EncrypGen and Zenome are also developing platforms that will allow consumers to sell their genetic information online, but they don’t offer genetic sequencing.