Image Credits: Andrew Brookes
Angling to be the go-to marketplace for these gene-based businesses, Helix, the spin out from genetic testing research and technology giant Illumina, has held a first close on a planned $200 million funding round led by new investor DFJ Growth.
Since its $100 million spin out in August 2015, the company has seen companies list about 35 products on its marketplace and expects to have about 70 to 100 products listed by the end of the year, according to chief executive Robin Thurston.
Products range from Everlywell’s series of food sensitivities, breast milk and metabolic activity tests to ever-popular ancestry tests (which are among the best selling tests across the board and also the prime product for Helix’s closest approximate — 23andMe).
Helix differentiates itself from other genetics testing companies with a new type of testing methodology, that the company argues is more accurate than previous tests.
The test is called “next generation sequencing” and it provides more data than existing sequencing tests including all 22,000 protein coding genes and “additional regions known to be of interest”, according to the company.
Once users pay the $80 to have their exome sequenced by Helix, they never have to take another genetic test for a service that’s listed on the Helix platform.
Also, while other companies focus on products and have expanded into sharing the results of customers’ genetic tests with other businesses — Helix is not developing any product itself other than the marketplace for companies to sell services.
“We are focused on, essentially, the supply chain,” says Thurston. “Building out the infrastructure and building the supply chain that people can build products on.”
It is, however, partnering with other companies to help build out services. In fact, that’s where a good chunk of this money is going to be spent, according to the company’s chief executive, Robin Thurston.
Plans are underway with the Mayo Clinic, a Helix investor and one of the leading medical research institutions in the U.S., for a range of new services and Helix has also partnered with other groups on population health services that could have broad implications for the industry.
Earlier this year Helix began working with the Renown Institute for Health Innovation to offer gene sequencing services to 40,000 Nevadans to begin conducting population health models based on the results of the genetic tests Helix will perform.
“We are very excited about the opportunities the next phase of this groundbreaking study will offer. Community participants will be able to gain deeper, actionable insights into their DNA data, while our research teams gain unprecedented access to the largest clinical DNA sequencing facility in the world,” said Dr. Anthony Slonim, the president and chief executive of Renown Health.
Helix sees the collection of all of this data as serving two purposes. One it gives consumers one single, secure place to store their genetic data and it also enables researchers and clinicians to have a one stop shop for accessing a massive trove of genetic information — if Helix’s customers let them.
“The genomics revolution has begun, and Helix is democratizing access to DNA for developers while giving consumers a safe and secure way to manage their own genomic data. We believe the Helix business model will stimulate an explosion of innovation in personal genomics products allowing people to take an active role in managing their health and well-being,” said Barry Schuler, the former chairman and chief executive of America Online and a partner at DFJ Growth, in a statement. “The Helix team has built a unique offering and an exceptional vision which will become the standard platform where consumers buy personalized genomic services as easily as they buy Smartphone Apps.”
For Thurston, the collection of this genetic information is critical as the gene editing technologies begin to be applied around the world to optimize different attributes and to combat disease.
“There’s human tests beginning for CRISPR… Here China is .. i’m not sure leading is the right word… is at the forefront,” says Thurston. “I think that genie is out of the bottle — so to speak — as it relates to genetic modification… [But] it’s a little bit early to be thinking about CRISPR when we understand very little about the human genome as it sits today. We would be better off to understand the sequence of genes.”
From Thurston’s perspective, more people need to be sequenced and more research needs to take place before you can go down the road of modification. And initiatives like the one Helix announced in Nevada will provide some of that information.
Helix and its corporate parent Illumina are also looking to help grow the genetics services market in other ways. The two have partnered to support new DNA-driven products for consumers in the latest batch of Illumina’s corporate accelerator.
“From an entrepreneur’s perspective, cost pressures, stringent regulatory and data security requirements, and continually evolving sequencing technologies are barriers to designing, developing, scaling up, and commercializing DNA-powered products for everyday life,” Thurston, said when the partnership was announced. “Through our collaboration with Illumina Accelerator, we hope to provide breakthrough startups with the resources, infrastructure, and support to transform their ideas into compelling consumer applications and services that make genomics relevant and accessible to every person based on their unique interests.”