Craig Venter, the scientist who made a name for himself more than a decade ago by challenging the NIH-funded Human Genome Project, has a new venture. Last week he announced Human Longevity, Inc. The company, according to their press release, is “focused on extending the healthy, high performance human life span” and is going to “tackle the diseases associated with aging-related human biological decline”.
Given Venter’s background, it’s no surprise that genomics plays a big part in this effort. They plan to sequence between 40,000 and 100,000 genomes a year. To do that, they’ve purchased two of Illumina’s new high-end DNA sequencing devices, the HiSeq X Ten, which is advertised as able to sequence a complete human genome for the long-sought-after price of $1,000.
So far they’ve raised $70M for this venture. $20M will go for those two sequencers, and $40M will go to sequence those first 40,000 genomes, so no doubt they’ll be looking for other sources of funding soon. Given Venter’s success at Celera in building interest in the potential commercial value of the human genome, I’d say he’ll have little trouble raising more funds - Celera pulled in over $1B from their public offerings of stock.
The Parallels between Celera and Human Longevity
I see several obvious parallels to his efforts with Celera. The first is that the company supplying the instruments for these ventures is in a great position. Recall that Applied Biosystems sold sequencers to Celera and the public sequencing labs, and then made money on each base sequenced from selling reagents and other consumables. Now, Illumina will make a lot of money from selling their machines and consumables, and will get some free ancillary marketing as well.
Venter vs. NIH Round 2?
The next parallel is that Venter is hoping to create value by generating the same kinds of data that the NIH and other funding agencies are producing. For instance, Human Longevity has stated that cancer is one of their areas of focus and the NIH is already engaged in sequencing thousands of cancer samples in the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project. However, recent estimates have been, as outlined in a recent New York Times article, that 100,000 tumors will have to be sequenced to identify a majority of genes involved in cancer. Given that TCGA has only about ten percent of that number, it’s worth wondering whether the NIH will be willing to spend the money for such an effort, given that they’ve already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on it.
Will it be Marketable?
During the Human Genome Project, Celera suffered because much of the information they were generating was available for free from the public project. In this case, Venter may be in a better position to compete. Unless the NIH is willing to drastically increase TCGA’s budget in these days of flat budgets, I’d say he has a good shot at cataloging a lot of new cancer mutations. What those mutations are worth commercially, and whether they will allow Human Longevity to be profitable, is the big question.