A genomics startup co-founded by genetics pioneer George Church of Harvard emerged from stealth mode on Wednesday, proclaiming that blockchain, the technology that underlies transactions of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, will help people understand their genome, find cures for (unspecified) diseases, and, unlike most existing genomics companies, guarantee that individuals will retain permanent ownership of their DNA data.
Nebula Genomics will do all of this, and more, through the hottest technologies since fire: Blockchain will ensure private untraceable transactions between individuals selling their genomic data and companies buying it, and a cryptocurrency called Nebula tokens will make the whole thing go round.
“It’s a new approach to challenges of genomics, including sequencing costs, genetic data protection, data management, and genomics big data,” Church said. “We have the initial $600,000 investment that we sought,” from an angel investor. By the end of the week, said co-founder Dennis Grishin, it expects to have raised an additional $1 million.
Marrying crypto and blockchain with genomics is only one of the company’s curious features. Grishin is a graduate student in Church’s lab; the other co-founder, Kamal Obbad, is an entrepreneur who graduated from Harvard in 2016 and will serve as CEO. Its six advisors include current employees of Veritas, another genome company that Church co-founded; an alumnus of digital currency exchange Coinbase; but also musician D.A. Wallach, former artist-in-residence at Spotify and an investor in SpaceX, Doctor On Demand, Ripple, Emulate, and Spotify.
The key motivation behind Nebula, Grishin said, is that very few people have had their genome sequenced, partly because of cost but also because of concerns about privacy and genetic discrimination. Church has long argued that the more genome sequences that researchers can access, the better and more information they can glean about the relationships between DNA and disease as well as treatments for diseases. Another barrier to wider adoption is that today’s personal genomics companies, notably 23andMe, acquire the DNA data of paying customers and then sell it, in aggregate, to companies that hope to use it for drug discovery.
Nebula, which explains its goals and strategy in a white paper, says it can do better on all counts. One slide in the white paper rates genetics companies including 23andMe, Ancestry, Veritas, and Genos on whether they provide private storage of genetic data, protect the data through blockchain or other form of secure computing, make data buyers such as drug companies subsidize an individual’s sequencing cost, and pay them for data. Almost all the companies have big fat X’s on each of these counts.
Unsurprisingly, Nebula has welcoming green checkmarks everywhere. On paying individuals for their genome data, for instance, the company says that those who have their genome sequenced through Nebula or anyone else, whom it calls “data owners,” will be able to “join the Nebula blockchain-based, peer-to-peer network and directly connect with data buyers,” potentially profiting from their DNA.
People who have their genome sequenced through Nebula, for a price starting at about $1,000, do not have to sell it to anyone, of course. The company also offers a sort-of DIY option so people “will be able to interpret their personal genomic data” with the Nebula app but “without sharing it with any third party,” the white paper said.
For data storage, Nebula will privately store individuals’ genomic and medical data, or enable them to store their genome sequence on, say, Dropbox. But these “data owners” will control who can access it. Data buyers must reveal who they are, and all records of bought and sold data will be stored in the Nebula blockchain, a technology that records all transactions (for, most famously, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies).
Playing to Church’s vision of lots of genomic data fueling important medical discoveries, the Nebula variant interpreter will get better and better as it analyzes more and more people’s DNA data, Grishin said; a variant originally associated with, say, breast cancer might turn out to be benign in the presence of a second gene variant. High-quality variant calls are key to attracting participants, Nebula said in its white paper, “since a good variant interpreter will incentivize individuals who obtained their genomic data elsewhere to join the Nebula network,” triggering a virtuous cycle.
Individuals who “join the Nebula network” can participate in surveys by “data buyers” — pharma or biotech companies developing DNA-based drugs, but also academics studying genetic variants and diseases or other traits. (Nebula will give academics free or reduced-price tokens.) The surveys will ask about medical conditions. If you have one of interest to the data buyer (the surveys have multiple layers to keep people from lying about having a condition that’s of great interest to companies), the buyer can offer to pay your genome sequencing costs. People will be able to “profit from selling access to their data.”
While it remains to be seen how attractive this will be to individuals and companies, even less clear is the flow of money into and through Nebula. Payment to individuals for their sequence data will be in Nebula tokens, its cryptocurrency, which will presumably be launched in an initial coin offering by which the company will reap actual, real-world money. “We are not announcing any token sale at the moment,” said Grishin. “A token is necessary for the functionality of our protocol, but we have not decided yet how they will be distributed.”
But a Nebula token is not a bitcoin, which can be used to buy airfare, furniture, and even baked goods. According to Nebula’s white paper, a token is redeemable only for its genomic sequencing, which the company will do in partnership with Veritas Genetics, which Church also co-founded. It’s therefore not clear how valuable any tokens people get from, say, a drug company interested in their A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s will be to them. People have no reason to be sequenced more than once. And as sequencing costs drop, Nebula tokens would be expected to drop in value. That suggests that every Nebula token after the first one — if, say, lots of companies want a peek at someone’s amazing DNA — might have little value to an individual.
In theory, people could sell their Nebula tokens for cash to others who want to have their genomes sequenced, hoping to reap a profit by, say, flipping enough tokens to cover the initial purchase price. But again, that price might not hold up, since, as pharma companies buy tokens and exchange them for DNA data, the supply of for-sale Nebula tokens will likely increase, putting downward pressure on their price in whatever exchange they trade on.
Grishin said the company “will probably be directly and indirectly buying tokens from individuals to resell them to data buyers. Individuals might also use tokens to pay for third-party apps that interpret certain aspects of their genomic data.” As for Nebula, it of course will have the cash — or “fiat currency,” in cryptospeak — that companies paid for the tokens they need to buy individuals’ DNA data (though it might give out some tokens for free, Grishin said, to encourage people to join the Nebula network).
It’s a tricky time to get into crypto. The four major cryptocurrencies have lost more than $500 billion in value since the start of the year, with bitcoin and Ripple faring the worst. This week, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup all enacted rules that prevent their credit cards from being used to buy digital currency, as Capital One and Discover had already done.