Last month, cancer researcher Amit Verma found himself in a bit of a bind. His lab at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York had just received feedback on a new paper about how genes get turned on and off when healthy pancreas cells develop into tumors. The journal’s reviewers asked his team to do some additional experiments, including a type of whole genome sequencing that reveals DNA modification patterns. With just a few months to turn around the new analyses, the researchers didn’t have time to get on a waiting list for one of the Einstein’s specialized sequencing machines.
One of Verma’s post-docs suggested they try something called Meenta—a new Boston-based startup billing itself as a cross between Airbnb and Uber for genetic sequencing. So they logged into the app, entered a few experimental parameters, and found a machine a few states over ready for a job at a price they could afford. They booked a lane, printed out a shipping label, and sent their cells out with the mail. In a few days, they’ll log on to Meenta’s cloud and retrieve their genetic data. “I bet it will cut our time to analysis in half,” says Verma.
We know what you’re thinking: Being the Uber of Anything is so 2014. But hey, science is slow. That’s kind of the whole problem.
As more and more researchers rush to probe the depths of the world’s DNA, sequencing services are in higher demand than ever. But the instruments that do that sequencing are still expensive enough that they’re beyond the reach of many companies, universities, and health care centers. So most people rent time.
Scientists can wind up spending weeks gathering quotes, sussing out the reputations of different sequencing centers, and waiting around for a machine to fill up with similar requests before they can even get started. To keep sequencing costs down, most machines are set up to handle lots of samples at once—a method called multiplexing. But it’s a lot of work to coordinate different researchers’ experiments. Right now facility managers do that all manually in spreadsheets.
It’s already an informal sharing economy of sorts. Meenta’s just making it much easier. Its algorithms match scientists with similar experiments and assign them to machines that will fill up the quickest. Both hosts and users are rated on timeliness and quality of samples and data to incentivize good behavior. And rather than sending an email and waiting for a quote, researchers can instantly book a sequencer lane right from the app.
“The fundamental problem of scaling personalized medicine is that the infrastructure for accessing these instruments doesn’t exist,” says Meenta CEO and co-founder Gabor Bethlendy. “No one had bothered to do the simple hard work of mapping out where these instruments are. How are you going to put sequencing in the cloud if you don’t know where the damn things are?”
There are roughly 3,000 sequencers in the US, ranging from $ 80,000 to $ 985,000 apiece, depending on the quality and amount of genetic data they can produce. The vast majority of them are made by San Diego-based Illumina. So far, Meenta has mapped about a third of them into a network of shared sequencing services. Each host facility—a combination of universities, research hospitals, private institutions, and commercial companies—sets their own price. They can change them at any time, to say throw a flash sale when they need to fill up a few lanes. Meenta collects a small fee to broker each transaction, similar to Airbnb and Uber.
An Illumina spokesman declined to comment on Meenta, and was unsure if anyone from the company had been in contact with the startup. But the sequencing giant has been making more moves lately to appeal to customers with smaller pockets and democratize access to its technology. Earlier this year Illumina shipped the first units of its new iSeq platform to beta testers. At about $ 20,000 and a cubic foot in size, the benchtop sequencer is the company’s smallest, most affordable machine yet. So far, only about 100 orders have been placed. But with that pricetag, Illumina anticipates the iSeq could attract more than 50,000 customers, most of them new to whole genome sequencing.
That would certainly be one way to address the sequencing bottleneck. But Bethlendy has his sights set on more than just sequencing. His startup recently signed an agreement with HarkerBIO—a company that distinguishes the 3D structures of proteins for pharma companies—to add proteomics services to Meenta’s marketplace. It’s a step toward creating entire virtual workflows for drug discovery and basic research.
“I think scientists should be able to create experiments in the cloud without ever owning the instruments,” he says. “How you want your samples prepared, how you want them analyzed, that should all be on demand with a few literal clicks of the mouse.” Dialing up biological insights won’t ever be as easy as getting a ride to dinner or a vacation rental on the beach, but now at leasts scientists like Verma can spend more time making discoveries and less time making reservations.