It takes a lot of money to plumb the depths of the human gene.

That’s why blockchain biotech company Nebula Genomics has started another funding round for its blockchain-based genome sequencing services and is talking to more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies about the benefits of using what the company has to offer.

The San Francisco-based company raised $4.3 million in seed financing during its first funding round thanks to 10 leading venture capital firms. Now, Kamal Obbad, Nebula’s CEO and one of its three co-founders, says the company will be launching a commercially accessible version of its platform later in the fourth quarter.

Obbad said Nebula Genomic’s technology is “99 percent” complete and that the company would spend the next few weeks fine-tuning its interface to create a “frictionless and understandable” user experience. He tells ThirtyK the company is in “deal-making mode” and setting a goal of “a billion people” on its platform.

“We’re focused on understanding our users’ needs to make a product that is helpful to them,” he says, adding: “We’re a company that wants mass adoption and mass scale.”

Genomic sequencing has the potential for early diagnosis of disease and the development of life-saving therapies.

The company is currently offering a beta version of its product to one pharmaceutical client and a few health advocacy groups. Obbad declined to identify them, although he said the advocacy groups focus on cancer and certain genetic conditions.

Nebula Genomics will sequence an individual’s genome for less than $1,000 and provide an analysis of the results. However, what makes this company different from more established genome-sequencing services is its use of blockchain technology to protect an individual’s privacy and to ensure that person’s control over how the data are used. As an extra bonus, users will earn Nebula tokens in exchange for sharing their genomic information.

Eliminating Middlemen

“The Nebula model eliminates personal genomics companies as middlemen between data owners and data buyers,” the company said in its white paper. Instead, people can buy their personal genomic data from Nebula’s sequencing facilities or other sources, join the Nebula blockchain-based, peer-to-peer network and directly connect with data buyers.

Genome sequencing companies such as ancestry.com, which generated about $1 billion in revenue in 2017, 23andme.com and helix.com can sell genomic data with a client’s permission, but clients don’t share in the profits. That’s a sore point for consumer advocacy groups and may discourage some people from paying for their genomic sequencing.

Nevertheless, the sector has continued to draw fresh interest because of its potential in early diagnosis and the development of life-saving therapies. “As in other sectors, blockchain in life sciences is in a nascent form,” a 2018 Deloitte report says. “But storing and tracking critical data on a blockchain could reshape the sector.”

An Infusion of Capital

Nebula Genomics is the creation of Obbad, Dennis Grishin and geneticist George Church, all from Harvard. Church has founded, co-founded or advised more than 15 companies in health care and biotech.

In August, roughly a year after its founding, Nebula Genomics secured the $4.3 million in first-stage funding from Khosla Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, Fenbushi Capital and Heartbeat Labs, among others.

In the press release announcing the funding, Robert Nelsen, managing director of Arch Venture Partners highlighted the company’s ability to address security and privacy issues.

“As genome sequencing inches towards mass adoption, security and privacy concerns remain core barriers,” Nelsen said. “Nebula’s team has architected a unique decentralized system that protects data while still making it easily accessible for researchers.”

The capital infusion coincided with the announcement of a partnership with Veritas Genetics, another company founded by George Church, which provides a genome sequencing service and whose open-source Arvados platform allows researchers to store, share and analyze genomic data of currently more than 20 petabytes. Through the partnership, Nebula Genomics will be able to map users’ genomes via its own resources instead of using an outside lab.

Obbad tells ThirtyK the company’s recent successes have stemmed from its focus on “giving users control of their data.” He said Nebula Genomics’ challenge in the near future was identifying consumers concerns, but he added that the company “would figure it out before we launch.”

James Rubin
James Rubin has covered a range of business topics for such publications as the Economist Intelligence Unit, Forbes Insights and Adweek. His papers have been presented at World Economic Forum events. He was an associate editor at TheStreet and is the author of the "Urban Cyclist's Survival Guide."