New Competitive Threat Forces Halcyon Molecular to Accelerate Its Game Plan

By Greg Kumparak , written on February 22, 2012

From The News Desk

Back in 2009, brothers William and Michael Andregg founded Halcyon Molecular, a genetics company with direction and funding from powerhouses like Peter Thiel, Luke Nosek, and Elon Musk. Their long term mission is a noble one: to figure out how to make people live longer.

Their short-term goal, while not quite as easy to package up succinctly, is pretty dang cool too: to figure out how to sequence the human genome faster, cheaper, and more accurately than anyone else ever had.

The only problem? They might have just been beat to the punch on that. A team out of Oxford claims to have pulled off something quite similar to what Halcyon was shooting for, and we're hearing it's caused Halcyon to rethink their game plan.

Our ability to survey the human genome (to look at the sequence of 3.2 billion little building blocks that define who we are; to extract the blueprint that defines everything about us, from our hair color, to our blood type, to the diseases we're susceptible to) is really quite new. The first complete human sequencing came in 2000, with over $13 billion plugged into the Human Genome Project.

While the price has come down a bit since, it's still astronomical: a personal genome sequencing can cost upwards of $100,000 and take weeks to complete.

That problem was the first one Halcyon set out to fix. They'd developed a breakthrough technology for sequencing DNA, and were aiming to get the process of sequencing the entire human genome down to 10 minutes and a sub-$100 price tag for each test ($2M electron microscope not included). Developing such things takes time, though — and that time might have just ran out.

Enter Oxford Nanopore. Just this past weekend, the UK company announced a scaling sequencing system called GridIon. Stack 20 of their $30,000 boxes together in a lab, and the company says it'll sequence a human genome in a staggering 15 minutes for around $1,500 per test. It's not quite as fast or as cheap as Halcyon wants to be, but it's close.

Close enough, in fact, that it has Halcyon weighing how they're spending their time. Should they keep down this road, or should they move on to the next challenge?

In an e-mail response to PandoDaily, Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, cofounder of PayPal, and a member of Halcyon's Board Of Directors) tells us:

Halcyon has a lot of hardcore technology and awesome engineers. No one has or is about to jump ship. Halcyon is one of the few companies where I'm an investor vs being part of the founding team, but I'm nonetheless committed to supporting them for years to come.

If this other tech really works and can do perfect DNA reading, including knowing which genes are expressed, then Halcyon will shift its focus to writing genes. My conversations with others at Halcyon have been along the same lines: yes, they were surprised by the news, and yes, they're considering fast forwarding to the next stage be it that Oxford's data rings true.

So what is that next stage? They've got two options:

- Data Mining: With sequencing as expensive as it is right now, very few people have actually had their genomes surveyed. When it becomes cheap, the amount of genome data out there will sky rocket. Once we have millions of genomes sequenced, we're going to have to try to understand that data, and to figure out what all of those little varying bits actually mean. If acquiring the genome is stage one, deciphering it is stage two.

- Gene Writing: Once we've got a better picture of what all of that data means... how can it be used to cure disease? Can parts of the genome be, in a sense, rewritten? To treat disease by ridding you of your genetic vulnerability to it? It may sound a bit sci-fi (and perhaps a bit spooky) — but that concept is the future of personalized medicine. VCs have been talking about this since the genome was first sequenced. But it may actually, finally, be within reach.

Coming from the finely focused world of web startups and iPhone apps, where every change of plans becomes a "pivot" and every sprightly new competitor a "killer", it's easy to see moves like Oxford's as cataclysmic. But these are billionaires playing with ridiculous concepts because no one else can afford to. If they're actually in this game for the long haul, for the betterment of mankind and the acceleration of science — as they all pledge that they are — it should be nothing but a bump on a long, long road.

The only question is: will they keep driving?

[Disclosure: Peter Thiel, who sits on Halcyon's Board Of Directors, is also an investor in PandoDaily]

[Image credit: Shutterstock]