This month’s “Company Spotlight” provides a closer look at Nebula Genomics, a human genome sequencing and health big data company on a mission to usher in the era of genomic sequencing by building a large and trusted genomic and health data marketplace for consumers, researchers and the medical community.
Kamal Obbad, CEO and cofounder of Nebula Genomics discussed Nebula Genomics’ marketplace, the need their platform is addressing, and where the future of genomics data sharing and access will lead to.
Nebula Genomics is using blockchain to ensure that consumers maintain control of their data and are compensated for its use, so that the Nebula marketplace will aggregate a critical mass of rich genetic information that researchers can analyze in order to accelerate drug development, streamline clinical trials, and usher in the era of truly personalized medicine. The eight-person company is headquartered in San Francisco, CA, and was founded in 2017 by Harvard Genomics pioneer George Church, along with Harvard researchers Dennis Grishin and Kamal Obbad. Nebula Genomics has recently secured $4.3M in funding from leading venture capital firms including Khosla Ventures, Mayfield and Arch Ventures. The funds will support the company’s mission to usher in the era of personal genome sequencing by creating a trusted, secure, and decentralized marketplace for genomic data. Nebula has also forged a partnership with Veritas Genetics, the leading whole genome sequencing and interpretation company, that will connect the Nebula marketplace to Veritas’ Arvados open-source software platform.
The following summarizes questions and answers from my dialogue with Kamal Obbad.
EB: Tell us more about Nebula Genomics – What scientific and business needs are you trying to address and what products/services do you offer? Blockchain is a critical component of Nebula Genomics – can you explain exactly how you apply this technology to your services?
Kamal Obbad: One of the main issues researchers and the pharma industry are facing today is access to large scale genomics data. The data as it exists today is very fragmented. It is generated in many different labs, by both nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and it is not centralized. One of the main reasons for this relates to trust; no one person or organization wants to take the risk of owning all the data, and there’s a reluctance to share what you do have. Yet to advance research, drug development, and clinical applications, access to genomics data is vital.
Nebula Genomics is providing a solution to this dilemma for the entire research community – whether you’re an individual researcher or a biobank. We’re going to make it possible for them to share data, to give others access without them actually downloading it. This trustless data marketplace, built on a decentralized system, lets data owners share their data while actually storing and maintaining it locally, in their preferred location. Data sharing occurs via the Nebula portal. One can connect, analyze, and access the data via the data url and a trustless access control layer. That means the Nebula portal is data storage agnostic; the data can reside in a local server, a private cloud, or the public cloud. As a result data buyers can get cheaper and easier access to large scale data without worrying about the security issue. In addition, we’re using blockchain to ensure data owners have complete transparency into who is requesting access to their information so they retain control, which will be a strong incentive for them to make their information available in the first place. It’s also important to emphasize that a data owner is not required to share his/her data when using Nebula’s services. Someone can simply use our platform for storing and analyzing their own data.
EB: How is Nebula Genomics’ approach different from more traditional models like Helix or Ancestry.com?
KO: Our solution is flexible in that one has the option to store data on their own servers and provide access to their data via a url, store their data within Nebula, or analyze the data on our platform if they choose. So our solution does not require biobanks to store their data on our servers. They can continue storing their genomics data on their local infrastructure. This is in contrast to some of the other offerings currently available on the market which require the data to be stored within their solution systems.
EB: You have partnered with Veritas Genetics to offer genome sequencing. Can you tell us more about the relevance of this partnership?
KO: George Church, one of Nebula’s co-founder, also is a co-founder of Veritas Genetics, which offers whole genome sequencing for $1,000. That’s very useful in the context of this partnership: It is convenient for customers who want their genome sequenced and then use Nebula’s services to make it accessible. This is not an exclusive partnership; we also partner with other sequencing labs to support the sequencing of our customers’ genomes.
Besides the sequencing component, the Veritas partnership includes the bioinformatics component which we offer to our customers who are interested in analyzing their genomes via our portal, representing additional value for us and for our customers.
EB: You are in the process of integrating health records with genomics data. Can you tell us more about this process and how these data are expected to complement each other? What value will this have for the data owner?
KO: Genomics is only really useful if it is paired with things like clinical data and health outcomes data, in other words, information on how the health of an individual changes over time. This is a challenging problem, but we are well on our way in working with industry-leading partners to build a solution for easy data integration so that data owners can upload and provide other health information along with their genomics data. This is currently planned to be in place by the time of the product launch and today we have announced partnerships in place with Bitfury, Insilico Medicine and of course Veritas Genetics. We will announce more as we finalize them in the near future.
EB: Will you provide services for your customers to analyze their data via different apps, similar to other offerings currently available on the market? What is your current vision on how you will support data analysis and interpretation?
KO: We’re more than just a data marketplace. We are also building and developing sequence data analysis tools, and we encourage outside developers to build tools and provide them via the Nebula marketplace. Data storage is going to be free from day 1 for data owners, as will some of the analysis tools provided via the portal. In addition, tool developers will be able to make their analysis and interpretation tools available via the Nebula marketplace. This is going to be a great opportunity for them to monetize their apps via our portal.
EB: How will Nebula Genomics support and incentivize data sharing?
KO: The data will be rich and enhanced with metadata, visible via the data store. Our plan is to connect clinical data via a toolkit with electronic health records. A buyer can then search and identify data of interest based on clinical metadata and request permission to access a specific genomic data set. In all instances, the buyer gets access for a specific use case only, limited permission to access a data set for one time only. The buyer pays the data owner to use the data for that specific analysis – the data owner gets paid, and through this transaction has the opportunity to monetize their data. The data owner will get paid in either cryptocurrency or US dollars.
Furthermore, if data owners share their data, sequencing will be offered for free – possibly paid directly by pharma companies that will get access to the data. Data owners will be able to substantially enrich their genomics data with uploaded clinical data. This will create value in the data that pharma will be interested to access, and as outlined above, the data owner has the opportunity to monetize.
Since data context and market demand will define the actual value of a genomic data set, we can’t at this moment, promise individuals how much money they can make through sharing their data.
EB: Who are you targeting with Nebula Genomics? How do you reach your target audience?
KO: We are targeting everybody! Low data diversity is a major issue when it comes to genomics data, and an important part of our mission is to ensure there is a far more diverse data set available. The marketplace needs data from people other than your typical 23-year old healthy individual from Silicon Valley. We plan to reach out and work with different groups, including advocacy groups, to realize this goal.
The first product launch is targeting the data consumer, and as such we are performing a pilot with pharma (and eventually also research organizations). Eventually, we will extend the marketplace with its capabilities to address the needs of data owners like clinical labs, biobanks, and hospitals.
EB: Why do you think the value in genome sequencing has not yet been fully realized, and has not gained more traction? What are some of the main reasons or concerns? How would you expect this to change in the future?
KO: With Nebula Genomics our goal is to make the value of sequencing a reality. Setting it up so that data buyers, or pharma companies for example can pay for genome sequencing, along with interest and incentives for individuals to share their health data, should surely increase consumer adoption.
Today, consumers are concerned about the privacy and security of their genetic data, as well as who controls its use, which makes them reluctant to share it. In fact, very few individuals have been sequenced to date. The data that exists also lacks diversity which further impedes research. And even if there were more genomic data available, it would be hard for researchers to use, because genomic data today is scattered across many different and often incompatible databases. Access is hobbled even more by inefficient system processes, middlemen, and bureaucracy.
Through our platform, we will provide incentives for millions of people to share their genomic information via our platform by offering them security, privacy, full access control, and compensation. Buyers can use our platform to obtain and analyze the specific health and genomic data they need, at the scale they require, without ever moving the data off the platform.