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From Bordeaux to San Diego: Portable Genomics on the Move

Xconomy San Diego — 

Fresh on the heels of advances in genome sequencing announced by Illumina and Complete Genomics earlier this week (and by Life Technologies last month), a French scientist tells me he is moving his startup, Portable Genomics, to San Diego.

Patrick Merel, a molecular biologist in Bordeaux, tells me by e-mail he has applied for an entrepreneur visa application that will enable him to move his company here. He writes in English, which is far better than my French, “Plans are to start end of this month to show up our business plan to San Diego and Silicon Valley investors.”

I met Merel in San Diego last May while he was attending a three-day summit organized by the Wireless Life Sciences Alliance. Even then he was thinking of moving to San Diego, saying, “In Europe we are facing difficulties in using genetic data, particularly in France where there are restrictions.” The vision for Portable Genomics, he said, is building tools that allow molecular biologists “to visualize your genome and to [help you] understand what is clinically important.”

The concept, which is still at a very early stage, is based on the assumption that it will be possible in another year to completely sequence an individual human genome for less than $1,000—and within three years, for less than $300. This is the promise of the recent announcements coming out of Life Technologies, Illumina, and Complete Genomics, as the speed of genetic sequencing increases and costs plummet.

Portable Genomics logo 2011The essential challenge, Merel told me, is figuring out how to get useful clinical data from the massive amount of computerized data generated by genome sequencing. “We want to have a tool on a portable device that will enable them to know information and what is important.” A woman with a genetic susceptibility to breast cancer, for example, should go more frequently for breast exams. Merel says software under development by Personal Genomics is intended to interpret a person’s genomic data and provide the relevant information to the consumer via a smart phone or other mobile devices.

Merel says that Portable Genomics’ software—which would work with data generated by a variety of sequencing technologies—would be offered on a subscription basis (i.e. software-as-a-service). The company is initially targeting portable devices like the iPad and iPhone, which use display technology that’s well suited for what Merel describes as Portable Genomics’ “unique graphical user interface.”

“We won’t provide any tests, just a better visualization of test results,” he says. “We are anticipating the need for learning and leveraging genomic information into actionable healthcare and lifestyle adjustments. We want to be a pioneer in providing genomic medicine tools on portable devices, anticipating the $100 genome era.”

Portable Genomics intends to initially provide information to subscribers for a limited number of established genomic markers. The second step, Merel says, “is to provide a full genome browser on portable devices. This solution will decipher client information and push PG knowledge database information, upgraded in real time, to the client’s portable device.”

Merel, who works at the Plateforme Technologique d’Innovation Biomedicale, a research center affiliated with the Hospital of Bordeaux, described his vision for the French newspaper Le Monde, which published a story about Portable Genomics on Dec. 29. He says the story triggered a wave of media interest in France, which has not been entirely friendly. (Ordering genetic tests online is prohibited in France, punishable by a $15,000 Euros fine and a year in jail, Merel told me.)

Le Monde suggests that soon people will be able to carry their genetic code like music playlists, or photo albums in a smartphone or iPad. Le Monde also says that institutions in San Diego and Seattle have enthusiastically encouraged Merel. (If you read French, take a look at page 12 of this pdf.)

“We have applied for IP in the field of genome visualization on electronic devices, have 1st a non-functional prototype on the iPhone, and a 2nd prototype on the iPad,” Merel writes in his e-mail. “Apple, in Europe, has expressed an interest into our project. A big telecom company and a big pharma, in San Diego, have also expressed some interest into this concept. So we look forward to have discussions with partners, that we are of course, in need of.”

Merel also lists his specific goals:

1) Get the Entrepreneur US Immigration Visa

2) Present our business plan to investors during 1st quarter

3) Raise funds during 2nd quarter

4) Hire this summer 8 people in La Jolla to develop a 1st product by the end of this year that will help to visualize DTC-Genomics [direct to consumer] results on the iPhone/iPad.

5) Our major goal is to have our full genome browser on smartphones by end of 2012, time at which, I think, we’ll be close to the $100 genome.

In the meantime, Merel says he is going back and forth, between Bordeaux and La Jolla, and laying plans to meet with prospective U.S. investors this month.