Ion Torrent’s Fast and Cheap DNA Sequencer Catches On, Even as Biologists Tighten Belts

Ask Jonathan Rothberg a few questions about his new venture in DNA sequencing, and, ever the showman, he find references to a pivotal event in world history while delivering what amounts to a “no comment.”

The questions were basic enough: How many employees do you have in San Francisco and Guilford, CT? How much has your R&D budget grown? How many customers have you signed up in the past nine months? Have you hit any of the milestones outlined in your 2010 merger agreement with Life Technologies?

“Come on, I’m not going to give that information out. This is like 1948 and we’re the Israelis,” Rothberg said with a laugh in a recent phone interview. “We’re still the underdog. Look at how good the other guys are. I respect my competitors too much to give out that information.”

Rothberg and his colleagues at Ion Torrent, the new unit of Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE) may be tight-lipped about internal matters at the moment, but they are cutting an increasingly high profile in the world of superfast/cheap genome sequencing. The company introduced its first-of-a-kind DNA sequencing machine based on semiconductor technology in December. Demand has been strong almost right off the bat, as it rang up $13 million in sales in the most recent quarter ended June 30, a 50 percent increase over the prior three-month period. That performance has come even while Ion Torrent has been swimming upstream against government research budgets that are getting nothing but tighter.

The early sales performance is certainly a small sum to a company like Life Technologies, which had $3.6 billion in revenue last year. But there’s undoubtedly a lot more potential for the Ion Torrent machine to drive growth at Life Tech and in the biomedical research world. The earliest version of the machine costs about $49,000, fits on a lab desktop, and reads individual units of DNA in a new way, through semiconductor chips that pick up distinct electron charges from each chemical base of DNA. It’s the first commercial machine of its kind, in an industry where large and heavy sequencing instruments often cost $500,000 or more, and generate their genomes by using fluorescent tags and sophisticated cameras to read the DNA code that varies from species to species and person to person.

San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN), Menlo Park, CA-based Pacific Biosciences (NASDAQ: PACB) and Mountain View, CA-based Complete Genomics (NASDAQ: GNOM) are a few of the companies deeply invested in fundamentally different kinds of technology for reading DNA at breakneck speed and low cost. Ion Torrent’s Rothberg previously founded another sequencing company, 454 Life Sciences, that was sold to Roche in 2007. There’s no doubting that Rothberg has set some lofty goals for his operation, particularly since he sold Ion Torrent to Life Technologies for $375 million, plus another $350 million in milestone payments, a year ago. Rothberg says the company’s technology is going to bring genome sequencing down to $1,000 per person by 2013; it’s going to continue to help public health officials identify pathogens within hours of outbreaks; it’s going to pave the way for a $100 billion new market.

Jonathan Rothberg

Yeah, Rothberg was quoted in a Forbes story last December saying this would become a $100 billion market. Nine months in to the product launch, he didn’t flinch, making the same prediction.

“It’s like the race to the South Pole 100 years ago,” Rothberg says. “The guys that win now will change healthcare forever. We’re at an amazing point in history.”

No question, a lot has happened for Ion Torrent since it rolled out its first commercial semiconductor sequencer, called the Personal Genome Machine, in December. The original microchip had 1.2 million accessible sensors, which was surpassed in a couple months by a new chip with 6.1 million sensors. The next iteration—expected to come out later this year—is designed to boost capacity to 11 million sensors. After only a few months on the market, the component cost of the mid-range chips dropped in price from $500 to $99. Rothberg isn’t saying yet how much the newest chips will cost.

While capacity is booming and price is falling, scientists are starting to think about experiments that couldn’t have been dreamed of a year or two ago. Ion Torrent isn’t saying how many machines it has sold so far, but, thanks to the global distribution of Life Tech, Ion Torrent’s machine is now established in labs in 40 countries, Rothberg says. The instrument, along with a rival instrument from PacBio, played a starring role in the German E.coli outbreak, helping researchers identify … Next Page »

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