Thursday, August 27, 2015

Helix: Vaporware or game-changer for cloud-based genomics


A while back, I wrote a 3-part due diligence [1, 2, 3] on the cloud-based genomics space, focusing on the competitive landscape around Seven Bridges Genomics.

Lets discuss the potential impact of Helix…

It’s not supposed to make money from consumers

The most important thing about Helix is that it is playing the long-game. It does not intended to make money from consumers. My best guess at the Helix strategy is about loss-leading bottom-up disruption with lock-in.


Basically, they will sequence your exome (or genome) at no cost to the consumer and take a cut of all APP revenue (30% Apple standard?). While the vision is for community developed content, they will need to seed the ecosystem with a few tools to both validate the developer API and generate interest: queue the first batch of high-profile ‘applications collaborations.’

I’m not too concerned about the infrastructure side, as Illumina should have already solved the hard cloud-based problems with BaseSpace and the hard laboratory integration/data management problems via HiSeq X deployments. I suspect this know-how will transfer.

Bottom-up disruption

At $500 in sequencing cost and a 30% app cut, consumers would need to average ~$1500 per person on “What colour will our kid’s eyes be?” and “When will I go bald?”…lulz…I think not.

The healthcare market is notoriously difficult to change; but, get consumers asking about Viagra, and the doctors may follow. That’s the idea behind Helix. Acclimatize the consumer to ‘sharing’ their genome for an insight, and hope it trickles into the clinic one “why can’t you GATTACA” question at a time.


Once consumers are locked-in to the platform, the real money begins: approved genetic tests that will be sold directly to institutions. Unfortunately, without the consumer adoption, Helix just wouldn’t have the clout and social license to operate to show hospitals out of the 1950s.

What other platform would be able to offer ‘free’ sequencing and have a database of (hopefully) millions of users to back it up? Not to mention, a large chunk of that ‘free’ sequencing cost will be ploughed right back into Illumina’s core business as instrument and consumable sales. None of the stand-alone cloud-based genomics shops can deliver that sort of synergy to the bottom-line.

The platform will then bifurcate between the non-approved ‘consumer’ apps (virtually free: check the price of any flashlight app) and the approved ‘institutional’ apps (gravy train).

Genius, if it works.

Competing vision to Oxford Nanopore’s Metrichor

Maybe I over estimate Illumina’s baby killing desire, but I also view Helix as a direct ‘vision’ challenge to Oxford Nanopore’s Metrichor.

Will everyone have a sequencer, like every lab has a PCR machine (Metrichor)?

Will you send-off sample for sequencing as a service, like every lab orders oligos (Helix)?

Will sequencing be ‘things’ focused (Metrichor) or human focused, moving up the value chain from novelty –> clinic (Helix)?

Only time will tell, but I like that both visions are beginning to be articulated.


The Helix announcement could completely upend the ecosystem. But, as always beware the hype and remember that execution reigns.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Even hackers have epics: Why we need Mel

Mel Kaye. To the uninitiated, a blank stare; within the sept, a folk hero. Mel’s [Free verse, Prose, Gist; Explained] is an epic tale of ‘real’ programming, about a level of heavy wizardry that only the very elite may ever approach.

As with all folk heroes, his tale has two sides.
On the one hand, there is the explicit demonstration of:
  • Supreme technical mastery,
  • Personal integrity, and
  • Code as self-expression.
On the other hand, there are elements which some may find subversive:
  • Intrinsic value of the hack,
  • Subversion of authority, and
  • Apathy to the ‘commercial’ value proposition.
Yet, only through this dualism does the story succeed in addressing the ethical questions developers face…

Is it just for programmers to subvert management?
Yes. Out of respect, our protagonist refused to report the cause of the bug.
Respect is the currency of the realm.
- j.ello

Is it just to rail against proprietary (or obfuscated) source?
Yes. Information wants to be free. Code needs to be free.
If programmers deserve to be rewarded for creating innovative programs, by the same token they deserve to be punished if they restrict the use of these programs.
- RMS, see also: GNU Manifesto

Mel encompasses the joys and sorrows of an entire discipline.

Mel does in one short story what technical guidelines and seminars can never achieve.

I say embrace the ethos. I say: What would Mel do?

Grok that.

R.I.P. Ed
23 September 1926 – 13 August 2014