By Matt Luchette
September 25, 2013 | The launch of Genohub, a company that helps link genomics researchers with sequencing providers, this past August marks a significant step forward in the Next Generation Sequencing industry.
Ten years after the end of the Human Genome Project, genetic researchers now have hundreds of companies, core facilities, and experts to choose from for sequencing their genetic samples. Each company offers unique services, but researchers have few resources to compare them. Genohub, a startup based in Austin, Texas, hopes to change that.
“There’s a disconnect between sequencing providers and [the] researchers who need their services,” said a molecular biologist and founding member of the company, who I’ll call Aaron. (He asked not to be named in this article because of other professional commitments.)
To find reputable sequencing companies, many researchers rely on their colleagues’ word of mouth, Aaron explained. And when these scientists are lucky enough to have a genomics core at their own institution, there are often “queues for their own core facilities.”
The role Genohub hopes to have in the NGS market is akin to companies like Kayak in the airline industry. A consultant looking to catch the Sunday night red-eye from San Francisco to New York has specific guidelines to meet when she purchases her airline ticket. But with tens of thousands of flights per day worldwide, all of them served by well over a hundred airlines, she could end up wasting valuable time tabbing through airline websites until she found an adequate flight. Kayak is a one-stop-shop that lets her filter out departure and arrival cities to find the best ticket for her needs.
For researchers looking for an NGS provider, the search can be just as onerous. Scientists need to find reliable companies that provide the specific sequencing service they’re interested in at the right price. On Genohub, clients can refine those parameters to quickly find the provider they need.
Pouya Razavi, the company’s CEO and co-founder with Aaron, noticed that of the NGS company directories available, none of them allows clients to compare services and prices between providers. He and Aaron first met at SUNY Buffalo in 2000 where Razavi was studying computer engineering and Aaron was studying molecular biology. Razavi went on to receive his master’s from the University of Illinois while Aaron stayed at SUNY to finish his Ph.D. The friends relocated to Austin soon after.
During frequent lunch conversations, Razavi heard from Aaron about many of the challenges in the still-nascent NGS industry. “We specifically became interested in the sequencing-as-a-service trend,” Razavi said, “and how a professional online marketplace like Genohub could make a huge impact.” The two felt that the industry could benefit from a service that would bridge the gap between the sequencing providers and their clients, creating a comprehensive database of NGS companies in the process.
“After several conversations with actual service providers and researchers,” Razavi says, “we decided to move forward and start Genohub.”
“Other companies,” Aaron explained, function like a phone book of providers, “but you can’t compare services. They get a lot of offers, but not a lot follow through.” Genohub hopes that by making service criteria transparent and tunable, the company can create better matches between NGS companies and potential clients, with less back-and-forth between the parties before a deal is made.
And like Kayak, which profits partially from airline referrals, Genohub’s profits come from successful transactions. Researchers can browse and buy services for free; companies can list services on Genohub for free, and they’re charged a small service fee for completed projects. The specific fee is still being refined, says Razavi.
From the Beach to the Skies
The mere fact that the biotech industry might need a company like Genohub marks an important step in the commoditization of genome sequencing. In the decades after Kitty Hawk, airplane travel went from an aristocratic adventure to a common commute. Similarly, improved techniques in the years since the Human Genome Project have taken genome sequencing from a multi-million dollar, multi-center project, to a couple-thousand-dollar procedure, depending on the technique.
While Genohub is still in its early stages, and far from an industry staple, one could imagine it having an impact like Kayak, creating an open NGS marketplace, streamlining the connection between providers and clients, and improving quality through competition between companies.
But who is using Genohub now? And what’s the feedback been like so far?
Genohub’s initial development began around May of 2012. This past March, “We attended the ABRF trade show and conference in Palm Springs [...] when we started opening up our service on a limited basis to service providers,” Razavi said. “Since then we’ve also directly approached some of them. However an increasing number are now hearing about and contacting us on their own.
“Initial feedback was great, and it’s gathering momentum,” Ravazi explained, adding that providers “like that they focus on next gen sequencing.” In particular, he said, providers enjoyed Genohub’s interface for listing services and prices in a structured way, freeing up wasted time quoting prices for customers on routine services. Since their initial opening, Genohub now hosts 30-40 providers.
By making it easier for clients to find reputable companies, Genohub could also expand NGS services to new labs. “The number one market is going to be small and medium sized labs,” said Martin Gollery, a bioinformatics scientist with 15 years experience. His bioinformatics consulting company, Tahoe Informatics, provides researchers and companies with “data analysis and higher-level planning.”
Gollery thinks Genohub will be particularly useful for labs with specialized needs. “There’re enough labs that do sequencing [now] that couldn’t do it before,” he said. Without companies they have tried and trust, though, these labs risk spending thousands of dollars on shoddy results if they choose an unreliable company.
Instead, says Gollery, "these labs may say 'I don’t know who to go to. I don’t want to buy a system. I’ll just go to Genohub and pick what I want to do.'" Having Genohub as a middleman, mediating conflicts if problems with a company’s quality or turn-around time arise, could provide the peace of mind these smaller labs need to take the plunge.
“It may not change the work that’s being done,” Gollery said, “just make it more efficient,” adding that it could also help drive prices down and increase transparency in the services specific companies provide.
Razavi noted that in the near future, he’s hoping to add a variety of bioinformatics analysis services to Genohub. The company has “heard from a lot of full-service providers and they would like to have bioinformatics” on the website, said Razavi.
Gollery was a bit more skeptical. “Bioinformatics will wind up on Genohub,” he said, but “it doesn’t work as well.” NGS services are typically standardized and priced based on the amount of sequencing done, but bioinformatics is “less of a cookbook,” said Gollery. The services are typically customized for specific projects, and the pricing can be just as variable, making it less amenable to a site like Genohub.
“Genohub will be a very useful site for those people who want to get sequencing done,” said Gollery.
While Razavi agrees that pricing bioinformatics services would be less straightforward, the company plans to make pricing for these services optional, instead allowing customers to “compare general factors,” such as the company’s technical expertise, turnaround time, and reputation, without forcing them to fix their prices on the site.
“The balance we’ve done is to allow providers to list bioinformatics services and not enforce a single pricing structure,” he explained. For researchers to know the exact price of a service, they would request a quote from a company that fits their criteria. Razavi says these new bioinformatics features are currently in development.
In addition to adding bioinformatics services to the website, Genohub has a number of long term goals they’re working on, including providing data storage services for clients. Furthermore, with an eye on the growing importance of personal genomics in medicine, Genohub hopes to create an interface for linking physicians to sequencing companies that are approved to handle patient samples.
“The exciting part of the NGS market,” said Razavi, is that “the variety of NGS applications is growing.” With Genohub, he hopes to expand access to NGS services, and bring NGS to researchers “who aren’t just in genomics,” like behavioral scientists or pharmaceutical developers.
“There’s a lot of exciting questions to address,” Razavi remarked, and with Genohub, he hopes to give researchers the means to answer them.