Ultima Genomics says it is emerging from “stealth mode” with millions in fresh capital and technology capable of sequencing whole human genomes for a fraction of the cost
Investors seem to be optimistic that an emerging genetics company has the proprietary solution to sequence a whole human genome for just $100. If true, this is a development that would be of interest to clinical laboratory managers and pathologists.
The company, Ultima Genomics of Newark, Calif., recently announced that it had raised $600 million from the investment community. In a press release last month, the company announced it has “emerged from stealth mode with a new high-throughput, low-cost sequencing platform that delivers the $100 genome.”
The press release goes on to state that Ultima will unleash a new era in genomics-driven discoveries by developing a “fundamentally new sequencing architecture designed to scale beyond conventional approaches, including completely different approaches to flow cell engineering, sequencing chemistry, and machine learning.”
Are we at the cusp of a revolution in genomics? Ultima Genomics’ founder and CEO, Gilad Almogy, PhD, believes so.
“Our architecture is intended for radical scaling, and the $100 genome is merely the first example of what it can deliver,” he said in the press release. “We are committed to continuously drive down the cost of genomic information until it is routinely used in every part of the healthcare system.”
From an Estimated Cost of $3 Billion to $450 in Just 30 Years!
Whole genome sequencing (WGS) has decreased dramatically in cost since research into the technology required got started in the early 1990s with the publicly-funded Human Genome Project. At that time, the cost to sequence the entire human genome was estimated at around $3 billion. Then, in 1998, John Craig Venter created Celera Genomics (now a subsidiary of Quest Diagnostics) and was the first to sequence the whole human genome (his own) and at a significantly lower cost of around $300 million.
The cost continued to drop as technology improved. In 2001, the cost to sequence the whole human genome hovered around $100 million. Twenty years later that cost had dropped to about $450/sequence, according to data compiled by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
When DNA sequencer Illumina announced in 2014 the arrival of the $1,000 genome, the news was expected to put whole genome sequencing on the road to becoming routine, Forbes reported. But that prediction didn’t pan out.
Ultima Genomics’ $100 price point, however, could be game changing. It would make the cost of decoding a human genome affordable for nearly everyone and accelerate the growth of personalized medicine in clinical laboratory diagnostics.
Applied Physics versus Biological Sciences
According to GEN, Almogy brings a tech background to Ultima—his PhD is in applied physics, not the biological sciences. He founded Ultima in 2016 after serving as founder, president, and CEO at Fulfil Solutions, a manufacturer of custom automation robotics systems. At Ultima, his goal is to “unleash the same relentless scaling in sequencing” that was used to drive down the cost of computing power and transform modern life.
“Ultima is the real deal, with good technology,” Raymond McCauley, cofounder and Chief Architect at BioCurious, and Chair of Digital Biology at Singularity Group, told Singularity Hub. “They’ve been working on an Illumina killer for years.”
In late May, Ultima released “Cost-efficient Whole Genome-Sequencing Using Novel Mostly Natural Sequencing-by-Synthesis Chemistry and Open Fluidics Platform,” a preprint that details the technology underlying Ultima’s UG100 platform. That news was followed by presentations of early scientific results by research institutes currently using Ultima’s technology during the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology 2022 annual meeting.
TechCrunch reported that Ultima’s UG100 sequencing machine and software platform can perform a complete sequencing of a human genome in about 20 hours, with precision comparable to existing options, but does so at a far lower cost per gigabase (Gb), equal to one billion base pairs.
According to the Ultima Genomics website, its breakthroughs include:
- An open substrate that creates a massive, low-cost reaction surface that delivers many billions of reads while avoiding costly flow cells and complicated fluidics.
- Novel scalable chemistry that combines the speed, efficiency, and read lengths of natural nucleotides with the accuracy and scalability of endpoint detection.
- A revolutionary sequencing hardware that uses spinning circular wafers that enable efficient reagent use, zero crosstalk, and ultra-high-speed scanning of large surfaces.
“We may be on the brink of the next revolution in sequencing,” Beth Shapiro, DPhil, an evolutionary molecular biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), told Science. Shapiro is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and an HHMI Investigator at UCSC and Director of Evolutionary Genomics at the UCSC Genomics Institute.
Ultima Genomics maintained a low profile since its founding six years ago. But that changed in May when it announced it had raised $600 million from multiple investors, including:
- Andreessen Horowitz,
- Founders Fund,
- Khosla Ventures,
- General Atlantic,
- D1 Capital Partners,
- aMoon, and
- Playground Global.
Affordable Genomics Will Lead to ‘Millions of Tests per Year’
Exact Sciences’ Chairman and CEO Kevin Conroy—whose Wisconsin-based molecular diagnostics company recently entered into a long-term supply agreement for Ultima Genomic’s NGS technologies—believes low-cost genomic sequencing will improve cancer screening and disease monitoring.
“Exact Sciences believes access to differentiated and affordable genomics technologies is critical to providing patients better information before diagnosis and across all stages of cancer treatment,” Conroy said in a press release. “Ultima’s mission to drive down the cost of sequencing and increase the use of genomic information supports our goal to provide accurate and affordable testing options across the cancer continuum. This is particularly important for applications like cancer screening, minimal residual disease, and recurrence monitoring, which could lead to millions of tests per year.”
GEN pointed out that Ultima’s 20-hour turnaround time is fast and its quality on par with its competitors, but that it is Ultima’s $1/Gb price (noted in the preprint) that will set it apart. That cost would be a fraction of Illumina’s NextSeq ($20/Gb) and Element Biosciences’ AVITI ($5/Gb).
Almogy told TechCrunch that Ultima is working with early access partners to publish more proof-of-concept studies showing the capabilities of the sequencing technique, with broader commercial deployment of the technology in 2023. Final pricing is yet to be determined, he said.
If the $100 genome accelerates the pace of medical discoveries and personalized medicine, clinical laboratory scientists and pathologists will be in ideal positions to capitalize on what the executives and investors at Ultima Genomics hope may become a revolution in whole human genome sequencing and genomics.
—Andrea Downing Peck