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The Next Big Thing

Fewer than 10 complete human genomes have been sequenced, which means we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of how genes that vary from person to person may influence health and disease. But that’s about to change.

Mountain View-based Complete Genomics has developed next-generation gene sequencing technology that reduces the material costs for sequencing an entire human genome to about $1,000. The company aims to be a “wholesaler for complete human genomes,” says CEO Cliff Reid, enabling pharmaceutical companies and academic research organizations to do large-scale, genome-wide association studies for diseases like cancer.

As is often the case, innovation happens when two fields collide. In 2001, serial entrepreneur Reid, PhD ’95, was in the process of selling his second enterprise software company and gearing up to do a third when a serendipitous meeting with the head of the biological engineering department at MIT turned him on to systems biology.

Reid, whose Stanford degree was in applied math, had always hated biology in college because it was not a systems science. He was stunned to discover that in the intervening years molecular biology had in fact turned into a systems science. “When I saw the problems that systems biologists were solving, I was struck by two things: one, how seminal DNA sequencing was going to be in the field of medicine; and two, that they had computing problems of epic proportions.”

Reid saw an amazing opportunity to direct his skills as a “big data and software guy” toward an interesting and important new problem. He quietly founded Complete Genomics in 2006 with Rade Drmanac, a molecular and computational biologist who had just patented a dramatic method of sequencing DNA. The whole process has been miniaturized so that an entire human genome fits on a 1-by-3-inch microscope slide. That means they can use smaller volumes of chemical reagents, which are the dominant cost, and can scan more genomes more quickly.

By summer 2008, they were able to sequence their first complete human genome—at 10 percent of the cost of their nearest competitor. When the service launches in June, a complete human genome sequence will retail for $5,000.

In the next five years, Complete Genomics plans to open 10 genome centers around the world with a combined capacity to sequence 1 million genomes every year. “That’s 1,000 people in each of 1,000 disease studies,” Reid says. “By the time that’s been done we will have broken the code; we will understand the genetic basis of all important human diseases.”

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