When consumers have their genome tested by services like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, the companies hold the rights to the genetic information, which they often sell to biopharmaceutical companies. Nebula Genomics is taking a different approach.
Nebula Genomics is offering direct-to-consumer genomic sequencing—for free. Well … sort of.
Customers will have an option of having their entire genome sequenced free of charge. In order to get that free service, however, they will be required to answer questions about health and other traits, such as cancer or cardiovascular history, disease, medications, physical activity. This will earn them credits toward free sequencing.
Answering questions earn credits or “tokens.” Once you’ve answered enough, you get to your genome sequenced for free. So, in other words, you’re selling your genetic and health-related information.
Which is still different than 23andMe and Ancestry.com and other DTC genomics companies.
If you choose not to share the data, you can go to Nebula Genomics and pay $99, which is less expensive than the $199 most other companies charge. And Nebula Genomics will sequence the entire genome, not just the disease-related sequences most other companies analyze.
“Nebula will enable individuals to get sequenced at much lower cost through sequencing subsidies paid by the biopharma industry,” George Church, co-founder of Nebula and a professor at Harvard Medical School and MIT, told the Boston Business Journal. “We need to bring the costs of personal genome sequencing close to zero to achieve mass adoption.”
Although the “free” aspect of the testing is getting attention, the privacy and ownership approach may be more significant. Because with Nebula Genomics, the consumer gets to decide. The company utilizes blockchain technology, the platform behind cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which allows the clients to decide who has access to the data.
Nebula customers will know who is requesting access to their data and why and can turn down those requests. The company is also working on encryption-based technology to protect shared genomic data.
“In addition to sequencing costs, data privacy concerns due to lack of transparency deter many people from sequencing their genomes,” Dennis Grishin, co-founder and chief scientific officer, told the Boston Business Journal. “We want to address this challenge by giving individuals full control over their personal genomic data.”
To further entice customers to go for the free service, Nebula uses 30X coverage for the free-with-sharing service. That’s a high level of sequencing accuracy. However, the $99 sequencing, at least for now, is about 0.4X, not nearly as accurate, although it does provide plenty of valuable information.
And there’s plenty of potential revenue in this for Nebula, either way. For example, GlaxoSmithKline paid 23andMe $300 million for access to its customers’ data. GSK is hoping the information will lead to new drug applications.
Nebula hopes that this control and privacy will help them stand out among a group of companies that have been taking criticism over those very issues. Nebula not only provides some analysis of ancestry, but also a “polygenic risk score,” that estimates gene variants associated with disease. They will also supply customers with all their raw data, to do with whatever they want—which in most cases will probably be nothing, but could allow for individual sale to biopharma or academic researchers if there’s something of interest there.
It’s also worth noting that two of the founders of Nebula Genomics are Dennis Grishin and Kamal Obbad. They were both recently recognized by Forbes magazine in this year’s 30 Under 30: Healthcare. Grishin is 28 and Obbad is 24.