By Kevin Davies
January 9, 2012 | Knome, the first private company to offer direct-to-consumer whole-genome sequencing, has appointed neurologist and biotech executive Martin Tolar as its new CEO as it seeks to push further into the genome interpretation market.
The Czech Republic-born Tolar brings experience in both big pharma and biotech. He was previously the CEO of Normoxys, a cancer therapeutics biotech, and before that the chief business officer of CoMentis. He also worked at Pfizer in clinical and business development, where he helped in the acquisition of Rinat Neurosciences. Before moving to industry, Tolar was an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at Yale University School of Medicine.
“Martin has the ideal skills and experience we need to accelerate our growth and extend our leadership in interpretation and application of genomic data and solutions across a wide range of markets,” commented Sundar Subramaniam, Knome co-founder and chairman of the Board of Directors.
Tolar says Knome has “superior technology and world-class genome interpretation capabilities that I believe will make a major impact on the way we diagnose and treat diseases, develop drugs, and make lifestyle decisions. We are on the cusp of the genomic and personalized medicine revolution — right when the cost of sequencing has reached a point where the application of genetic information is feasible across a host of opportunities.”
Tolar told Bio-IT World that he wants Knome, which these days brands itself as “the human genome interpretation company,” to expand its steadily growing business in academia to target two major areas: biotech/pharma drug development and individualized clinical genome interpretation.
One of the major reasons Tolar emigrated to the United States was the excitement in the early 1990s around “the Decade of the Brain.” Despite his training, he quickly realized that there was not much that neurologists could do for their patients. “You can describe their problem but there’s not much you can offer,” he says. “That’s what brought me to industry.
For some time, he was skeptical about the progress of genomics in drug development. “I’d been following the genomic revolution from bench to clinic to pharma,” he says. “It never translated into much tractable [progress]. Companies like Millennium and deCODE raised a lot of money, but didn’t do much.”
Naturally, Tolar believes that Knome, which was co-founded in 2007 by Harvard Medical School professor George Church, can change that. “What impressed me about Knome is, this is really happening now. They lead the [genome interpretation] technology.” Knome’s software helps analyze and interpret huge amounts of NGS data, providing a link to phenotypic information and enabling comparisons across genomes.
The company’s early focus was on the consumer genomics market, but Tolar says that business “went away when sequencing costs fell.” The company has subsequently transitioned to growing business with academic groups. Knome says it has about 100 academic clients, which should account for $20 million in revenues in 2012. Tolar thinks this could grow into a $100 million business in academia.
The big opportunity, however, is in the pharma and biotech sector, and then the medical field, says Tolar. Biopharma spends huge amounts of money on drug development, with fairly mediocre results, hampered by efficacy and safety problems. Tolar believes Knome can help pharma clients by identifying patient responders. “I’ve seen this at Pfizer and in biotech – they’d give anything to improve the odds of running the clinical drug trials that will target the right population,” he says.
Tolar identifies two “sweet spots” within the pharma pipeline. One is the phase II/III transition, where pharma has to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars “making a bet that this will be a real drug.” The other sweet spot is at the end of phase III, when newly approved drugs encounter “idiosyncratic problems you’ve never seen before” that likely have some genetic basis.
Knome offers a product called knomeBASE, which is an automated informatics tool for clients “who know what they’re doing,” as Tolar puts it. For other customers who may not have such expertise, knomeDISCOVERY will provide “the whole solution.” The tools are priced at $3,750 and $4,998, respectively.
Tolar says Knome’s other major focus will be in the medical arena. “My vision: You go to your physician, they have your genetic information, and based on your background, here’s the diagnosis, here’s the appropriate treatment.”
Even though he has only been on the job a few weeks, Tolar has been delighted by the number of leading medical institutions “actively seeking us,” including “some very famous institutions in the U.S., Europe and Asia,” eager to ramp up clinical genome services.
“It’s happening now,” says Tolar. “Some of the big institutions want to do it this year. We have exactly what they’re looking for. This is because, while other [genome interpretation] companies are popping up, they have nothing to work with. We have the advantage of four years of fine tuning.”
That said, Tolar acknowledges that Knome can’t simply roll out a product and expect medical institutions to form a queue. “Medical institutions have to own this – they have to be the front for it. Medical societies, internal medicine, they will be the ones [to lead adoption]… You have to have buy-in from the pricing and reimbursement agencies.”
Along with Tolar’s arrival, Knome also announced a management reshuffle. Knome’s former CEO, Jorge Conde, will now serve as chief strategy officer, leading the development of Knome’s genome interpretation software and services.
“Jorge was very instrumental in bring together our technology and IT and genomics,” says Tolar. “He’ll lead product development. We need to adapt our platform for the academic centers, pharma/biotech and medical [clients].”
Jonas Lee, a founding member of Knome’s board of directors, becomes chief marketing officer and head of consumer genomics. And Marc Rubenfield becomes VP operations, having previously helped introduce next-gen sequencing services at Beckman Coulter Genomics.