By Kevin Davies
April 25, 2012 | BOSTON—Less than two weeks into his new position as CEO of Real Time Genomics (RTG), Steve Lombardi shared some of his early vision with Bio-IT World, judging this week’s conference to be the perfect venue to make the official announcement.
RTG is a San Francisco-based private company comprised of a small business team and a group of computer scientists and mathematicians in New Zealand, led by Professor John Cleary. “His team is expert in big data and a number of years ago was looking for problems to solve. They found an opportunity when approached to work in genomics,” says Lombardi.
In a nutshell, “what RTG wants to create is next-gen genomic analysis. We need to bring the cost (of analysis) down so you can create a whole workflow of value for next-gen sequencing,” he says.
“The RTG team took a new look at the bioinformatics pipeline from the perspective of the ‘big data’ problem. Most of what’s in the pipeline today are point solutions that everyone is trying to connect together. They took a different approach: they built a core engine that you can apply to any sort of point problem in genome analysis, and build algorithms and solutions based on that engine. The technology just screams!”
Lombardi was most recently CEO of Helicos, the latest in a string of senior executive positions in the genome sequencing and analysis industry, including more than two decades at Applied Biosystems and Affymetrix. After spending a year in his own words, “attending to a mid-life bucket list,” Lombardi started scouting for a new job last year. Among his priorities, he says, were “good technology, good people, good investors, and good patent protection.”
Meanwhile, RTG was hearing from investors that it could really benefit from an industry insider at the helm. Once they reached out to Lombardi, he brought in three bioinformatics experts to help with his due diligence. “The business opportunity is large but I needed to know the technology was solid,” Lombardi said.
The response from Eugene Myers (creator of BLAST and the Celera genome assembler), Francisco de la Vega (ex-Life Technologies) and Philip Kapranov (ex-Affymetrix, Helicos) was unanimous. “Gene [Myers] was very impressed with the team, the technology, and where the technology could go. That was really positive,” said Lombardi.
While endorsing the speed and accuracy of the technology, they also noted the relative lack of validation in terms of biological relevance. “There’s technical feasibility, but the company needs to arrange scientific collaborations that prove the technology can do really good science,” Lombardi was advised.
RTG cut its teeth working on plant and bovine genome analysis with a livestock association in New Zealand. But the company’s most prominent early customer is George Weinstock, deputy director of The Genome Institute at Washington University in St Louis (see, “Computer Scientists' Solution to a Biologist’s Problem”). Weintock’s microbiome project would have taken years to complete the analysis, consuming all available compute resources. “We put a full metagenomics pipeline in place, from sequence to pathway analysis, and compressed ten years [of analysis] to two months, matching the time it takes to produce the data,” says Lombardi.
RTG will provide accurate results in a compute friendly environment. If we can provide some really efficient compute technology combined with great software applications, then more people will be able to do this sort of work.”
What Lombardi is most excited about, he says, is to find ten more groups like Weinstock’s who can benefit from and potentially partner with RTG. “Doing collaborations like that will give me time to figure out the best way to monetize this. With my experience, I can figure out a business model that works. I’m really excited about this.”
Lombardi says RTG is already talking to pharma companies. “Pharma has already farmed out the production of sequence, and is now considering farming out the primary data analysis. So we’re much more than metagenomics,” he says.
The advantages provided by RTG, Lombardi claims, include improvements in technical performance combined with dramatic improvements in compute performance. “What excited me was what Gene Myers said. I asked him, ‘Are they at a 9 or a 1?’ He said ‘There’s a lot of headroom left in this technology.’ If John Cleary can deliver another 10x performance, then that will match what will happen in the next few years in sequencing production. People aren’t going to analyze a single genome, they’ll analyze cohorts of thousands of genomes.”
Lombardi says RTG is offering something competitive in biological performance. “You don’t need to dedicate your entire compute farm. Then we can look at other markets, where commoditized sequence production can be turned into value through an efficient, accurate bioinformatics solution.”