|Helix Chairman Jay Flatley|
CEO: To be determined (Illumina CEO Jay Flatley will be chairman of the board)
Based: San Francisco
The scoop: Helix is one of the boldest bets yet on the consumerization of genetics. The company aims to offer a critical mass of apps based on the digitization of individuals' genetic data. It is building what will be one of the world's largest DNA sequencing facilities in San Diego to collect the data, as well as the IT infrastructure to store and protect the information. Then partners will access the information via an Application Program Interface to build a variety of apps for consumers.
The goal is to "change genetics from something that is clinical and inaccessible to the average individual to something that is available when you want it and how you want it," said Justin Kao, the company's senior vice president of corporate development, operations and strategy, in an interview.
What makes Helix Fierce: Helix's unique (and at this point somewhat secretive) corporate structure means the joint venture will have financial and logistical backing of some of the top names in med tech. Genetic sequencing giant Illumina ($ILMN) is the primary backer. In addition to a providing a sizable chunk of the more than $100 million committed to the firm, it's providing the testing equipment to do the sequencing at the San Diego facility.
The Mayo Clinic is another strategic investor, and its Center for Individualized Medicine will help Illumina develop apps that provide consumer education and answer health-related queries. Also, LabCorp ($LH) will offer analysis and interpretation services to consumers via the Helix platform.
In this way, each company can focus on what it does best, so that Helix will become a synergistic combination greater than the sum of its backers' parts.
Kao said the genetic samples will be collected via a saliva collection kit, a strategy already being pursued by 23andMe to detect carriers of the genes for Bloom Syndrome (though its Personal Genome Service was yanked at FDA insistence).
Using Illumina's testing tech, Helix aims to test a bigger portion of the genome than 23andMe, including at least all the genes that constitute the exome. Kao said the early name of the project is "Exome+".
The key to Helix is application program interface which will digitize an individual's genetic data. Kao said the company aims to do all the hard work of collecting, analyzing and storing the information so that third-party programmers can focus on their core competency.
Due to the API and data collection, analysis and storage efforts made by Helix, "developing a next-generation sequencing app becomes as easy as developing a new software product," he said. The software platform will be neutral, meaning it will not favor Android apps over those from Apple or any other company.
Kao was previously a vice president of healthcare at Warburg Pincus. After helping the private equity company fund Helix, he decided to work for Helix itself once the joint venture exited stealth mode in August. Sutter Hill Ventures is also contributing to Helix's deep pockets.
What to look for: Kao said the genomic data-based app store is targeted for launch in the second half of 2016. The company is in discussions with a variety of partners, and hopes they agree to offer apps that leverage the data and API to provide insights into fitness, diet, health/wellness, and genealogy. Kao described another desired category of apps as social/novel. It will be an exciting wait to see what kind of apps the creative Silicon Valley types can create.
Kao said the additional partners and app developers will be "companies and brands that people are going to recognize," adding "we need to have a critical mass of products available at launch."
Observers should keep an eye on the company's promised ability to keep genetic data safe and secure, as is the case for all companies who have access to individual's genetic information. In addition, it is not clear if any clinically oriented apps are planned, such as those that predict the likelihood of inheriting or another disease. They will likely arise if Helix is a success, setting the stage for an interesting regulatory situation.
In the short term, Kao said Helix plans on making a number of announcements, such as its CEO, who has yet to be determined, or at least shared with the public. But the company's finances will be consolidated in Illumina's financial statements--making its profitability another one of the things to look for.
-- Varun Saxena (email | Twitter)
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