Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Got DNA? Biocomputing Start-Up DNAnexus Lands $15M From Google Ventures and TPG

DNAnexus, a start-up that aims to create a DNA database in the cloud and then offer it to researchers and scientists as a service, has raised a $15 million A round of venture capital funding from Google Ventures and TPG Biotech. First Round Capital, SoftTech VC, K9 Ventures and Felicis Ventures — all prior investors — also participated.

Krishna Yeshwant, a Google Ventures partner, and Geoff Duyk, a TPG partner, have also joined DNAnexus’s board of directors.

Andreas Sundquist, the CEO of DNAnexus, told me that one of the big advantages of having an investment from Google is access to its computing infrastructure and some of the 20 percent time from Google employees.

Google, he said, will collaborate with DNAnexus to provide access to a huge archive of publicly available DNA information. The archive will take over where the federal government’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) is leaving off, after being shut down because of budget cuts.

DNAnexus and Google have teamed up to take over that database and will continue to provide access — for free — to medical researchers. It will now live in Google’s cloud, and researchers will now have a new, easy-to-use interface for accessing it. It represents the largest single dataset ever put on Google’s infrastructure by a third party.

Don’t mourn the government effort. DNA databases are probably better handled by the private sector, Sundquist says, mainly because sequencing a genome, which used to require NASA-sized multibillion-dollar budgets that only big governments can sustain, is no longer so complicated or expensive.

“The reason we started the company is that we started to see that DNA sequencing was getting about 10 time cheaper every 18 months,” he told me. “Ten years ago it cost about $3 billion to sequence a human genome. Now you can do it for about $4,000. It’s like Moore’s Law on crack. In a few years it will be less than $1,000.”

That kind of cost reduction means there’s likely going to be an explosion in the amount of DNA information collected, the kind of surge that Google is uniquely capable of scaling up to manage. “We’re moving from a world where practically no one has their DNA sequences to a world where nearly everyone does, and it just becomes a part of your medical record,” Sundquist says. “The question is, how do you manage all that. It’s one of the biggest and most complex sets of data in the world.”

Answer: The cloud. Think of DNAnexus as sort of a for people who need access to DNA information. The data will live in the cloud, and researchers will have access to it through a software-as-service model. “DNAnexus is really a DNA data management and analysis platform in the cloud,” Sundquist said. “We’re trying to build database technologies that unlock the possibilities of DNA-based medicine in the cloud.”

Who would pay for it? Anyone who needs DNA sequencing work done: Medical researchers, drug companies, medical doctors. DNAnexus will do the heavy lifting associated with getting the sequencing done. Beyond that, it will manage the ever-growing trove of DNA data and provide all the computing tools that those customers need in the course of doing their work, via a SaaS platform. It already has customers in academia, at places like Stanford University and Harvard University; at pharma companies; and even practicing medical pros in their day-to-day practices, using DNA information to improve their health care and diagnosis problems.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik