Genapsys finally unveils vaunted sequencer, but can it dent Illumina?
Hesaam Esfandyarpour holds what looks like a mini-cooler up to the computer screen in his California office.
Esfandyarpour is in his late-30s, with crows feet creeping up against a youthful face. He wears a gray polo and the device in his hand — with its hard plastic-looking shell, blue-and-white pattern, and a white plastic paddle resembling a handle jutting out the front — might contain diced strawberries and peanut-butter sandwiches to meet mom and the kids at a SoCal park. Instead, Esfandyarpour tells me it’s going to change medicine and biopharma research.
“Medicine is broken compared to other technology,” he told Endpoints News. “It means a lot for biopharma… it’s going to make a big impact on what’s going on with biology, both for the patient selection and it’s very important for clinical trials.”
Esfandyarpour is the CEO and founder of Genapsys, and the device is his long-billed DNA sequencer. It’s hooked up to the cloud and the white paddle actually contains a slot for a sequencing chip on which you place the DNA sample.
Speaking at conferences, lecture halls, and to Facebook billionaire Yuri Milner, Esfandyarpour has promised for several years that the 9.5-pound device will make DNA sequencing faster and cheaper — an iPad was his common point of comparison, although the launch product is larger — and thus usher medicine into the big data era. Now with $90 million in backing from Foresite Capital and others, that device is hitting the market.
Esfandyarpour said diagnostic and biopharma research labs have been highly interested in the tech for its capability and cost. But Keith Robison, a computational biologist for a Boston-based synthetic bio company, said that while Genapsys may find interest from new biotechs, most scientists have been trained on Illumina. Companies would face huge switching costs.
“Is there a market for these relatively small output sequencers?” Robison, who also runs the blog OmicsOmics told Endpoints. “Illumina controls 90% of the sequencing market overall, anyone trying to get into the market has to fight this giant.”
Esfandyarpour’s background is in electrical engineering and he’s been saying medicine is broken for some time now, telling Stanford students in 2017 “Steve Jobs claimed to be a prophet, I was in his religion” and “we can move atoms… but when it comes to medicine we’re still in the cave age.” This area of medicine, though, has been cornered and guarded for some time. Illumina now counts sales over $3.3 billion per year and a market cap of $43 billion. With an eye toward upstarts such as Nanopore and Ion Torrent, they’ve rolled out new products such as their NovaSeq $100 affordable option.
But Esfandyarpour says that’s $100 for a service from a million-dollar machine (and doesn’t really cost $100). Genapsys’s device comes at $9,900 — they market themselves as “under $10,000” — and is all-in-one. You put the DNA onto a sequencing chip made from superconductors and slip the chip into the device. The readout takes about a day. According to Robison, it enters as the cheapest sequencer on the market.
The applications for cheap, road-trip-cooler sized genomics are wide and Esfandyarpour spoke about teasing out new cancer targets and rapidly testing patients for clinical trials. Roche’s Foundation Medicine estimates that despite advancements in targeted oncology, only 15% of cancer patients get advanced DNA sequencing.
Much of that tech already exists in some form, though, Robison said. He thinks ultimately there is room for Genapsys to break in, but it will depend on how good the early editions are. He recalled Nanopore getting blasted on Twitter when early versions of their platform gave inaccurate readouts. The tech improved but the reputation stuck.
“The thing probably is real, but can they really execute?” Robison said. “Does the thing work as it advertised? When I get one, does it really behave or is it like an As Seen On TV thing?”