Brainin Joins WuXi NextCODE, Prioritizes Actionability Of Genome

By Allison Proffitt

September 13, 2017 | WuXi NextCODE today announced the appointment of Rob Brainin as executive vice president and chief operating officer. Brainin joins the company from Illumina, where he was vice president and general manager of life sciences and applied genomics.

Brainin’s background is varied: law school, consultant at McKinsey, then a move into life sciences. He worked at Invitrogen, Life Technologies, and Thermo Fisher where he worked to move Ion Torrent technology into healthcare systems, and then Illumina.

His passion lies, he told Bio-IT World, in using technology to help society. “Life sciences broadly, of course, fits that, but genomics really—with all my heart I believe there’s opportunity to do that.”

Only recently Brainin has come to the challenge with a new, personal motivation: his nearly 8-year-old daughter has neurofibromatosis type 2, a rare genetic disorder that causes tumors on nerve tissue in the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. She was diagnosed when she was 5-years-old, and Brainin now serves on the board of the Children’s Tumor Foundation, a 501c3 group seeking to drive research and ultimately cures for the neurofibromatosis.

“I have a pretty unique vantage point seeing this from an industry and business perspective, but also from a parent and patient advocate perspective, and from a foundation perspective,” Brainin says. But even with his experience he found it hard to bring the pieces together to move treatments forward.

“A lot of people are seeing [discovery and genomic medicine] through their specific lens. There hasn’t been anyone at this point that’s been able to bring it together holistically that sees the different pieces of it: Here’s how a foundation looks at it. Here’s how a pharma company looking to build therapeutics looks at it. Here’s how a researcher in academia looks at it. And here’s how a parent or foundation as a proxy looks at it,” Brainin explains. “WuXi NextCODE [has] the unique capability to… bring those [stakeholders] together to create the types of programs and cohorts, to really create the infrastructure to enable these rare disease foundations to incorporate genomic analysis into the disease research that they’re doing.”

“Rob understands genomics intimately and is skilled at listening to users and helping them to take advantage of sequence data to achieve their goals,” Hannes Smarason, CEO of WuXi NextCODE, said in a press release announcing Brainin’s appointment. “I can’t think of a better person to build out our business and to leverage that growth to deliver ever more powerful consumer solutions—creating a network effect that enables everyone to benefit from the genome.”

Platform Progress

Smarason tells Bio-IT World that the company is focused on serving the field of rare disease in both the US and China, both undiagnosed diseases and those that are “rare but known”, as Brainin describes neurofibromatosis.

“The genetic mechanism behind the disease at least gives you a foothold for where to begin,” Smarason says, but the company plans “to play an increasingly important role in the application of this technology to the end user, with the end user being broadly defined as either a researcher, a clinician, a parent even.”

The WuXi NextCODE platform is built on a database to store genomic data and the company’s knowledgebase that serves as a reference dataset. From there, Smarason says the company is investing more and more in building out comprehensive solutions directed at these user groups, and modularizing the platform and making it useful for different use cases. “We are in the process of API-enabling that entire platform, which will then open up the development of applications to potentially anyone has the ability to create an app, Smarason explains.

“We are going to have a very flexible solution on top of which we can build applications, third parties can build applications, and it’s really built around specific use cases,” Smarason says. “We hope it will enhance the number of people who can interact with genomic information.”

It’s a reality Smarason says that is “rapidly” approaching, thanks in part to a fresh funding round for the company. WuXi NextCODE announced completion of a $240 million Series B financing round last week from global private equity investors.

“When you think about the task at hand, we’re dealing with the biggest data source on the planet affecting the biggest industry in the world. That obviously is going to require us to have significant resources at our disposal,” Smarason said.

The company extended and completed the Series B round with investment from a consortium led by Sequoia China and including Temasek, Yunfeng Capital and 3W Partners. Temasek, Yunfeng and 3W also participated in the initial Series B round in May alongside Amgen Ventures and other existing long-term investors and partners.  China Renaissance Group is the sole financial advisor to WuXi NextCODE in the latest financing round.

WuXi NextCODE is using the proceeds from this round to accelerate the extension of its platform infrastructure—artificial intelligence is a big part of that, Smarason says—and to build out sales and marketing and commercialization infrastructure. “In China in particular we have a lot of work to do to capture the clinical and consumer opportunities that we have before us,” he explains.

The company is also investing in its “technology arsenal”, Smarason says, “making sure we are operating at the leading edge of the best tools and techniques.” He expects acquisitions and partnerships to accelerate the company’s vision.

For Brainin, step one is simply target identification. “What attracted me here in the first place is how focused WuXi NextCODE is on the actionability of the genome. The tricky part is that there are so many things that are actionable, that are starting to emerge. Number one on the punch list is trying to prioritize which are the ones we go after first and the hardest. There are so many good things we could go do.”

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