George Church founds cryptocurrency-fueled genomics firm

George Church
George Church (Veritas)

George Church is betting blockchain technology and a cryptocurrency will smash perceived barriers to widespread genome sequencing. The prolific startup creator has cofounded Nebula Genomics in a belief the red-hot technologies will drive down the cost of sequencing while allaying privacy fears.

Nebula will offload the actual sequencing of genomes to another of Church’s companies—Veritas Genomics—that offers a $999 whole-genome sequencing service. That frees Nebula to focus its attention on creating a blockchain and cryptocurrency, called Nebula tokens, that enable people to anonymously share their data with buyers in return for virtual money that subsidizes the sequencing costs.   

Church and Nebula’s other co-founders and advisors think this approach will address two big barriers to demand for sequencing. Unlike other sequencing and genotyping shops, such as 23andMe, Nebula will enable people to directly, anonymously sell their data to drug developers and other companies. In cutting out the middleman using a blockchain-enabled peer-to-peer network, Nebula thinks it can address privacy concerns while giving people a way to subsidize their genome sequencing costs.

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Nebula emerged from stealth mode with a 28-page white paper (PDF) explaining its approach. But there are still plenty of uncertainties about how the model will work in practice and whether it will prove attractive to consumers or data buyers. In theory, people may want profit directly from their genomes—rather than have a middleman such as 23andMe sell their data—but it is unclear whether Nebula tokens will be a big enough incentive. 

The tokens can only be spent within Nebula’s network. As people will only get sequenced once, the value of selling data once this is done is currently undefined. Also, with the cost of sequencing set to fall, the token’s value and need for subsidies will decline with time. 

RELATED: George Church's Veritas starts $999 whole-genome sequencing service

Management at Nebula have ideas about how the company may manage some of these issues.

“[Nebula] will probably be directly and indirectly buying tokens from individuals to resell them to data buyers. Individuals might also use tokens to pay for third-party apps that interpret certain aspects of their genomic data,” Nebula co-founder Dennis Grishin told STAT. Nebula thinks its offer to app developers is more attractive than that of Illumina-spinout Helix as it will support “decentralized Blockstack apps that will run locally on data owner computers and interpret privately stored genomic data.”

The company’s ability to attract drug developers and other data buyers will depend on the supply side. If very few people get their genomes sequenced, there won’t be much data to buy. But if the consumer-focused side of the business takes off, Nebula thinks its pitch will prove attractive. The core idea is that Nebula will make data acquisition more efficient. 

“We will define standard formats for genomic and phenotypic data that is offered on the Nebula network. Data standardization will help data buyers curate large and diverse datasets and save significant costs,” Nebula wrote in its white paper. 

Nebula has raised $600,000 from an angel investor and is closing in on a further $1 million to get it up and running.