By Paul Nicolaus
November 17, 2016 | The sequencing of the first human genome took over a decade to complete at a cost of several billion dollars, but times have changed and costs have plummeted – dramatically. That same task can now be accomplished for around $1,000 in just a couple of weeks.
It’s clear we’ve entered a whole new era of genomics, according to Ruiqiang Li, CEO of Novogene Bioinformatics Technology Company, a privately owned business headquartered in Beijing with branches in Hong Kong, the U.S., and the U.K.
Founded in 2011 by Li, the company has since grown to become a leading provider of genomic services and solutions. What began as a few individuals has turned into a team of over 1,000 total employees, and revenue has more than doubled year over year for the past five years.
Novogene currently has the highest sequencing throughput in China and the Asia area, Li said, but his vision for the company and its sequencing capacity reaches even higher. “Maybe next year we are going to be the largest sequencing center globally,” he said.
At least part of the secret to Novogene’s success can be attributed to the advanced technology the company has embraced. Using state-of-the-art Illumina systems, including the HiSeq 4000, HiSeq 2500, NextSeq 500, and MiSeq, the equipment can be matched up with customers’ specific needs.
Using its next generation sequencing (NGS) systems, Novogene has the capability to tackle large scale human, plant, and animal whole genome sequencing projects of any size, turning jobs around faster than local cores and the majority of service providers.
It’s the Illumina HiSeq X Ten system, typically sold in groups of ten units, that has allowed the company to stake its claim as one of the largest sequencing centers in the world. Joyce Peng, PhD, general manager, said the equipment allows Novogene to provide economy of scale, a good price point, and fast turnaround times for customers.
Going All In
It may have been a bold move to stick the $20 million into this technological investment, but it was a timely one as well.
An expert in genomics and bioinformatics, Li is a former principal investigator at the Peking-Tsinghua Center for Life Sciences at Peking University and a former VP at BGI (previously known as the Beijing Genomics Institute), where he developed SOAP (Short Oligonucleotide Analysis Package) for ultra-fast sequence mapping, variation detection, and de novo genome assembly.
It was BGI that put China on the map as the global leader in DNA sequencing six years ago. The Shenzen-based firm had purchased 128 of the world’s fastest sequencing machines and was said to have more sequencing capacity than the entire U.S. and over half the world at that time.
Plenty has happened since then to shake up the scene. The equipment that had once allowed BGI to outpace its competitors became outdated in the fast-paced world of genomics while Illumina’s X series revved up the speed and lowered the cost of sequencing, encouraging others to challenge BGI as the clear frontrunner.
Those who’ve put skin in the game include WuXi PharmaTech, Cloud Health, and Novogene—the first company in China to acquire Illumina’s new system when it was introduced in early 2014.
That move to invest heavily in equipment has positioned Novogene as one of BGI’s most prominent challengers. According to Li, Novogene’s sequencing capacity is about twice that of WuXi and significantly higher than BGI right now as well.
And the competition has only grown more interesting considering China’s multibillion-dollar, 15-year precision-medicine initiative announced back in March. (By comparison, a similar effort in the U.S. has a budget of $215 million.)
Funds are expected to be put toward technological improvements, sequencing, and the sharing and analyzing of human genomes, in addition to diagnostics and the development of drugs. The end goal is to improve health outcomes by allowing physicians to use data in order to better individualize treatments for patients.
In the wake of the big announcement, players within the medical space are grappling to gather their slice of the pie by partnering with genome sequencing companies and developing proposals for the anticipated work at hand – a phenomenon that puts firms like Novogene in a primetime position.
It’s more than size and capacity that has established Novogene as a true contender, though. Ask company leaders, and they’ll tell you the top-notch technology that helped the company emerge as a sequencing superpower is only one piece of the puzzle.
Other differentiators include a dedication to scientific excellence, customer service, and data quality. With 43 NGS-related patents, over 200 publications in top tier journals, and over three quarters of staff members holding advanced degrees, the company’s expertise has helped attract a client list that includes big pharma and some of the most prestigious educational institutions around the world, including Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia.
And the output is impressive. Novogene has completed nearly 10,000 projects and sequenced over 140,000 samples for more than 6,000 global customers spanning 28 countries, offering a range of NGS-based services for human, plant, animal, and microbial DNA and RNA analysis in both research and clinical markets.
With an eye on allowing clientele to move forward quickly and efficiently with their various scientific goals and objectives, Novogene’s services focus on not only performing sequencing but also on providing informatics and data analysis. Bioinformaticians make up over 40% of the staff, enabling Novogene to provide its customers with publication-ready data.
The last year has brought with it plenty of excitement for Novogene as it continues to make the strategic moves needed to maintain its status as an industry leader.
In late 2015, the company entered into an agreement with Illumina to jointly develop clinical applications in reproductive health and oncology based on NGS technology. The collaboration will look to provide advanced and integrated sequencing solutions to the clinical market.
In particular, the two companies will work to develop a user-friendly diagnostic system for clinical prenatal DNA and oncology testing in the Chinese market. Novogene will provide its nucleic acid extraction, library preparation, and data analysis software, while Illumina will contribute its NGS instrument components and related reagents to the cause.
Even more recently, Novogene announced the establishment of its first genomics sequencing center in the U.S., located on the Sacramento campus of the University of California, Davis. When the company purchased its second Illumina HiSeq X Ten system, it installed five of these sequencers in the newly established facility.
It actually used to be BGI’s facility, explained Peng, but when it was shut down, the vacant lab provided Novogene an opportunity to move into a space already equipped for NGS work rather than renovating or starting from scratch. “We did look for other labs, but this one allowed us to hit the ground running the fastest,” she said.
Novogene rents the space from UC Davis and provides sequencing to the university and other customers. The new center is expected to provide whole genome sequencing and analysis of samples for biomedical and agricultural research to both U.S. and global customers.
Ultimately, Novogene’s goal is to establish a CLIA-certified laboratory in the UC Davis facility that will enable human genome sequencing for clinical applications as well, including the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of disease.
“We are trying to provide services to the U.S. market,” Li said, noting that Novogene wants to be a local company in order to be more responsive to customers in North America. The UC Davis lab can help improve turnaround time and response to those area customers. “We can see it’s a good match for meeting the demands of the market.”
In September, Novogene announced yet another development – a joint venture with AITbiotech, a Singapore-based NGS products and services company, to establish a high-throughput (HTP) next-generation sequencing and R&D Centre in Singapore.
NovogeneAIT Genomics Singapore will deliver NGS services using Illumina’s HiSeq X Ten sequencing system and a team of professionals skilled in both wet-lab and bioinformatics. Services will be provided to the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) and the South Asia region.
Novogene plans to invest in the research and development of next-generation genetic testing products and services, particularly in oncology, and NovogeneAIT Genomics Singapore will seek out research and development collaborations with leading research institutes located nearby.
Just the Right Time
The company’s expansion won’t likely be winding down any time soon. While his company may still be young, Li’s ambitions are big and bold as he envisions Novogene’s role within the field of genomics.
“In the future we may have more labs globally,” Li said, with a goal of better serving customers worldwide. “In the coming years we can see more opportunities,” he added. “I really see the potential, and it’s just the right time.”
“He has the goal to be number one in this space in the world,” Peng said, “and the company is willing to grow, expand, and adapt to the global market to be successful.”
Paul Nicolaus is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer. Send comments, questions, or story ideas to email@example.com, or learn more at www.nicolauswriting.com.