Illumina teams with VCs to place $100M bet on consumer genomics

Illumina CEO Jay Flatley

Having played a major role in making consumer genomics feasible, Illumina ($ILMN) is now looking to shape how the nascent sector develops. The company has teamed up with big-name VCs to create Helix, a deep-pocketed startup that is one part massive next-generation sequencing operation, one part app store for genomics.

Illumina has joined with Warburg Pincus and Sutter Hill Ventures to get the $100 million startup off the ground. Some of the cash will go toward the creation of what Illumina claims will be one of the largest next-generation sequencing labs in the world. Reuters reports the capacity will allow Helix to go one better than 23andMe by looking at all of the protein-coding genes--the exome--instead of just single nucleotide polymorphisms. Despite the different approach to sequencing, Helix expects to be priced competitively.

While the focus on exome sequencing could give Helix something of an edge, its real opportunity for differentiation lies downstream. Once a person has their DNA sequenced by Helix, they can dig into the data using apps provided by the startup's partners. So far, the Center for Individualized Medicine at Mayo Clinic--which has invested in Helix--and LabCorp ($LH) have signed up as partners, but the plan is to build an ecosystem of app developers. LabCorp will get the initiative started with analysis services focused on medically actionable genetic conditions, but Helix has an even grander vision.

"We believe that the digitization of the genome will unleash entrepreneurs and developers to create new applications for consumers in a way never before possible," Noah Knauf, managing director, Healthcare at Warburg Pincus, said in a statement. Helix foresees apps for genealogy, wellness and inherited traits, but at this stage the ultimate scope of the ecosystem is hard to predict. The model is reminiscent of how Apple ($AAPL) worked with third-party developers to turn iPhones into digital Swiss Army knives and what Illumina is trying to do with BaseSpace.

As with those initiatives, the success and eventual scope of Helix will depend on the ecosystem of apps that emerges and the willingness of consumers to share their data. Helix has stressed that its database will be secure and compliant, objectives it is well placed to achieve given its bank balance and founders. Illumina CEO Jay Flatley will serve as chairman of Helix. The startup is still looking for a CEO and is hiring for multiple positions, including bioinformaticians and software engineers.

- read the release
- check out Reuters' take
- here's FierceMedicalDevices' coverage
- and the job postings