Can The Genome Be Cracked for $5,000? OVP, Enterprise Partners Say Yes in $45M Round

Complete Genomics, the Mountain View, CA-based company that says it can sequence entire human genomes for as little as $5,000, has pinned down a $45 million venture round which includes support from two of its founding backers—Kirkland, WA-based OVP Venture Partners and San Diego-based Enterprise Partners Venture Capital.

The rest of the capital is coming from Prospect Venture Partners, Highland Capital Management, and a pair of new life sciences investors with deep pockets—Essex Woodlands Health Ventures and OrbiMed Advisors. It’s the fourth round of financing for Complete Genomics since it was founded in 2006, and brings its financing total since inception to a little more than $90 million. The company plans to use the money to continue building what it says is the world’s largest commercial human genome sequencing center, in Silicon Valley.

The genome sequencing field has been on an audacious drive to get better, faster, and cheaper, and Complete Genomics has made some of the boldest predictions on how far it can push the frontiers. The company made headlines last October when it declared it intended to start sequencing full genomes this year for as cheap as $5,000, and deliver them in as little as four days. This would be an astounding leap forward in democratization of genome sequencing, which until recently has been so costly and time-consuming that only a handful of genomes have ever been completely sequenced. If the technology were made more widespread to do that, researchers say, it could shed valuable light on how small, individual variations in genetic code can lead to diseases.

Complete Genomics plans to make this possible partly through proprietary sequencing technology and with a different kind of business model. The established players—Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies, San Diego-based Illumina, and Switzerland-based Roche—make money by selling expensive equipment and supplies to researchers. Instead, Complete Genomics plans to establish its own in-house sequencing center in Silicon Valley, and ask researchers to send in their samples to get them sequenced for a fee. Complete Genomics just needed the latest round of financing to build its own proprietary machines to do the work at commercial scale.

“Our equipment is orders of magnitude better than anything the others guys make,” says Chad Waite, a managing director of OVP Venture Partners, and a founding investor in the company. “That’s the only way we can do it so cheap.”

Still, not everything has gone exactly according to plan. When I wrote about the company in October, Waite said Complete Genomics intended to start offering its commercial sequencing service starting in the second quarter of 2009, and pledged to deliver 100 full genome sequences to the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle during calendar year 2009. The company fell behind on its schedule. Now Complete Genomics won’t be able to deliver all 100 sequences to the Seattle-based Institute this calendar year, Waite says.

Chad Waite

Chad Waite

“We’re a bit delayed because the financing took a bit longer than we expected,” Waite says. “But we have already shipped a significant number of completed sequences to commercial customers.”

Skeptics have raised doubts about whether Complete Genomics really has superior technology, whether it can do the work so cheaply, and whether the data it produces will be full of errors. The company plans to answer these doubts in future scientific publications, Waite says. He wouldn’t say specifically how many sequences have been completed, or which customers have received them, although he noted that Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology and George Church of Harvard Medical School, a pair of giants in the genomics world, are scientific advisers to the company.

If Complete Genomics can show in a major scientific paper that it can do this many complete sequences at a high degree of accuracy, it will surely make headlines around the world. The actual number of genomes that have been sequenced is disputed, but at least according to a recent story in the New York Times, only eight have ever been completely done.

The latest financing should be enough to bring the company up to a commercial scale that can meet demand for many more sequences than that, Waite says, although it may not be the last financing for Complete Genomics. Waite raised the possibility of an IPO. I laughed out loud because I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.

“They’re probably bold enough to make an attempt in the not-so-distant future,” Waite says. “The question will be if it’s possible, and when.”

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