Author: George Busby Edited by: Luiz Guidi
There is a smart cafe at the top of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the sort of place undergraduates take their visiting grandparents to wash down a round of cucumber sandwiches with a pot of Earl Grey tea. On a warm spring day in 2014, Peter Donnelly was sitting on the outside terrace, catching up with an old friend, John Colenutt.
Over the course of their tea, Donnelly, currently Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, told Colenutt, an investment banker who had switched to the charity sector, of his new commercial venture, Genomics plc. The company had started on the back of a 2013 collaborative academic research project (called the WGS500 project) between Donnelly’s Oxford research institute, the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, and the genetic sequencing behemoth Illumina.
The WGS500 project was set up to assess the role that whole genome sequencing could have in identifying the causes of diseases in patients thought to be genetic. By finding novel, rare mutations involved with these diseases, the project had been a success. As a direct result of this project, David Cameron and George Osborne released money for Genomics England, a new government-backed initiative. Genomics England would be a company wholly owned by the Department of Health and charged with delivering the 100,000 Genomes Project, an ambitious mass genome sequencing project for the NHS.
To encourage innovation, the Conservative government made it a precondition of the incorporation of Genomics England that it could only work with commercial entities. Donnelly, together with his Oxford colleague Gil McVean were both motivated by a strong belief that genomics could be an essential tool in healthcare, and so were interested in getting involved with the data. However, to do so, Donnelly and McVean would need to start a company.
The pair wanted to bring in some additional expertise to found their company so they asked Chris Spencer and Gerton Lunter if they were interested in the idea. Spencer, a colleague with years of experience doing large-scale disease genomics analyses, and Lunter, an expert in algorithmic and computational methods, were interested indeed. With the founding team now in place, Genomics plc was incorporated in early 2014.
Developing ideas and understanding the market
After their initial discussions with Genomics England, with Spencer and Lunter now on board, Donnelly and McVean realised that their ambitions were far broader than just servicing the 100,000 Genomes Project. As they built their business plan, they identified additional opportunities. For example, they were well placed to get involved with the collection and curation of a spectrum of heterogeneous public genomic data sources, which were stored in various formats and places.
There were also other genomics projects on the horizon, like the UK Biobank, where genomic data would be available to both universities and companies, which would also be tied to dense and detailed phenotypic measurements. Centralising these sequencing datasets would be the key to unlocking the potential of genomics in healthcare.
Defining the core business
Amassing enormous datasets is only part of the story of Genomics plc. If Colenutt was not sold on the potential of the company by this aspect alone, his interest must have been piqued when Donnelly told him about the analytical capabilities of their team. In the words of Colenutt, "if you're not doing good analysis, then the rest of it is a waste of time". And “good analysis” of these data would naturally lead to a wide variety of outputs, from drug discovery to personalised medicine. Solid analysis of substantial datasets is difficult, however, therefore, being able to carry it out would provide real value to the company.
Along with curating data and its analysis, the final element of Genomics plc’s business strategy “core trinity is the insight into human biology that comes from the deep analysis of well-maintained data. In fact, this is the central drive behind the company. "If this company succeeds, the world will be a better place", says Colenutt. By the time only the crumbs of their mille-feuille remained on their plates at the Ashmolean Museum terrace café, Donnelly had managed to convince Colenutt not just of the potential of the company, but also to be its CEO.
Getting the company going
Not yet three years old, Genomics plc has grown to a thriving start-up with over 30 full-time employees. “The nice thing about biotech is that it’s for profit,” says Colenutt, “which provides a clarity of thinking and purpose, and there’s a clear barometer on whether you should do things or not, which you don’t get in the charity sector.”
During my interviews, McVean told me that to get to where they are now, they needed to speak to as many people as possible in the early days. For example, they met with Oxford University Innovation, got legal advice from lawyers who worked with spinouts, and spoke with academics from Oxford with experience in starting businesses. He also suggested that budding entrepreneurs should not be afraid to ask around; there is a lot of help out there and plenty of people to talk to. “There is, within the UK and internationally, actually a very mature ecosystem of investors looking for university spinouts who are in it for the long term. They’re taking bets, obviously, and they expect most of their bets to fail, but they do typically have a reasonably good track history of sniffing out things that are likely to be successful.”
One crucial early interaction of Genomics plc in 2014 was with Dave Norwood and IP Group, one of the two main investment firms that put money into UK university start-ups (the other being Imperial Innovations). Norwood, a chess grandmaster, had been involved with a number of successful spinouts, including local unicorn Oxford Nanopore Technology. Norwood agreed to chair the board, and business administrative help was provided by IP Group. “Lots of young companies fall over because they just don’t do basics right” Colenutt tells me. “Filing tax returns when they need to and stuff like that, which may not the most exciting task, but can really catch you out. So you can basically outsource all of that in the early days so you can concentrate on what you’re trying to do, which is growing the business…”, says Colenutt.
The second key benefit that Norwood brought was introducing Genomics plc to potential investors. “Every new company has to raise money, otherwise it’s all talk”, Colenutt remarks. “Dave can’t get those guys to invest, but he can help get us in front of people. We’re incredibly lucky that we’ve got him involved in the company, it’s a real differentiating factor for us.”
When Colenutt and his team started talking to investors “it was an open door, really. One of the easiest things we’ve done”, says McVean. “We told them of our track record in statistics and genomics, and this ambition. I think we spoke to five people and four of them wanted to invest in us”. In November 2014, Genomics plc announced a successful first funding round of £10.3 million.
Keeping a fluid business strategy
McVean is confident that in the future, Genomics plc will deploy their services in a whole variety of settings. However, at the moment, their business strategy mainly involves working with pharmaceutical companies for drug target identification and validation, and working in partnership with Genomics England. In every case, having a powerful platform that enables analysis to be done in an efficient and scalable way is key to the company’s offer.
According to McVean, it’s clear that their current success is built on an ability to be fluid and flexible. “You have a big team of people who need to pull together to do a ‘thing’. And in a start up, that ‘thing’ may be poorly defined to start with and may change, and is constantly challenged and revisited and chewed over. That means that we’ve had changes of direction. For example, early on, we thought that we’d release software for the clinical interpretation of whole genomes, but after a while we realised that that was never going to be big for us”, he says.
Building the best team
Finding and looking after the best people have been key focus points for the company but also the challenges. “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the structures, command chains and feedback loops right, so that you can do what it is you are trying to do in an effective way. There’s a lot of potential manpower, and if it’s not well organised, it can go in an awful lot of different directions. So that organisation of activity has been a challenge… The people that you employ are the most important thing. Get that wrong, and you’re in trouble”, says McVean.
The team brings a variety of skills to Genomics plc, from genomics to computer science and software engineering. Scaling up to millions of genomes is truly a big data problem. “We need to listen to people who know how to build and run software infrastructure at scale and those who understand and care about the legal frameworks around these datasets”, Spencer tells me. “There’s a huge challenge ahead, but for us the potential is clear. Having the right people, working together, to do science, is what is going to make the difference.”
Advice for entrepreneurs
For those thinking about starting a company, McVean has some clear advice. “There’s real value in doing things really well. Google and Apple weren’t the first to do what they do, but they do it really well. Do something that people want, even if they don't know it yet, that will generate insight that is not just focused in one direction. Do something that opens up a whole load of other stuff.”
At the top of McVean’s list of areas with potential is measuring things. “I get incredibly frustrated that there’s not enough stuff measured. You can measure disease endpoints well, but we want to understand what’s going on in organisms at a much finer resolution. That’s an area where there’s a lot of room for new technologies.” He also offers a reminder that whatever you do, you need to define what your market would look like: “remember that you've got to sell.”
Despite having a unique birth story, Genomics plc is a great example of how a group of scientists are exploiting their expertise to take advantage of a new opportunity that appeared in front of them. It is also clear that they are having fun and enjoying the ride. A key theme of their life so far is adaptability and fluidity. And by positioning themselves as a genome analysis company with the aim of understanding human biology, they are allowing themselves to be flexible in the future. It will be interesting indeed to watch how Genomics plc evolves over the coming years.