NextBio Finds Profit at Intersection Between Public and Private Genomic Data

Bioinformatics was a buzzword at the beginning of the genomic era about a decade ago, but it has become a dirty word today. It’s sort of like shorthand for a highly fragmented cottage industry that seeks to analyze biological data, in which no one seems to make money. But whatever you want to call it, Saeid Akhtari still sees big opportunity in using information technology to help biologists make sense of all the genomic data piling up in servers around the world.

And he’s actually starting to make money at it.

Akhtari’s company, Cupertino, CA-based NextBio, doesn’t claim to have singlehandedly solved all the data overload issues that are emerging as genomic instrument makers race ahead with machines that seek to sequence complete human genomes, with 6 billion chemical letters, for $5,000 or even less in coming years. But NextBio has grown to 60 employees, built up an impressive roster of blue-chip pharmaceutical and academic customers, and has started to operate on a cash-flow positive basis in its sixth year, Akhtari says.

The big idea at NextBio is to take the vast amounts of genomic data piling up in free public databases like those run by the National Institutes of Health and pool it with proprietary internal data from for-profit customers, in a way that can be mined by average lab bench researchers in real-time. NextBio’s vision is to make this web-based service so easy to use that a biologist doesn’t need help from a trained bioinformatics expert, and can get clear answers that shed light on how, say, certain genes are up-regulated or down-regulated in a diseased tissue.

“We’re finding that by correlating different pieces of data, new things pop out at you,” Akhtari says.

Saied Akhtari

Saeid Akhtari

NextBio got started back in 2004. That was when Akhtari sold his last bioinformatics company, Silicon Genetics, to Agilent Technologies for an undisclosed sum. Akhtari co-founded the new venture with Ilya Kupershmidt, one of his key lieutenants at Silicon Genetics, and Mostafa Ronaghi, the chief technology officer of the market leader in gene sequencing instruments, San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN).

Back then, NextBio saw the growth in genome-wide association studies, the search for subtle variations in genomic code called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), and the growing use of next-generation sequencing tools that were making it possible for biologists to run all kinds of new experiments that might shed light on what’s going wrong and causing disease. One of the big problems then, Akhtari says, was that biologists couldn’t just run queries against these datasets on their own—they needed to ask for help from a bioinformatics expert. It was sort of like the days before Google or Bing, when information professionals needed to ask research librarians trained in Boolean logic to run online queries that got good results. The simple numbers game says … Next Page »

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