2014 is widely viewed as a breakout year for genomics. Christian Henry, Illumina’s chief commercial officer, recently shared his insights in an interview at the company’s headquarters in San Diego. Henry joined the company in 2005 as chief financial officer and also previously served as general manager of its life sciences business.
Why was 2014 a tipping point for genomics and for Illumina?
The first thing that comes to mind is the technology. The introduction of the HiSeq X Ten at the beginning of the year really pushed genomics to a whole new level and captured the imagination of scientists, clinicians, and consumers. A few years ago, it would have been hard to fathom an initiative like the 100,000 Genome Project, launched in the U.K. this summer. The concept of population-scale genomics is probably the breakthrough event of the year.
As a company, in the past year or so we also realized we need to have a clinical mindset for virtually everything we do. Key members of our team joined including Francis deSouza, Rick Klausner, Tina Nova, and Mya Thomae. They are really driving an evolution within the company, integrating the clinical mindset into almost everything we think about – whether that’s new instruments or software or the way we meet and greet the customer. All of these aspects will be impacted by a clinical transformation that started taking place this year.
2014 started for us with incredible products that came together over the last few years. It’s closing with our recognition of the enormity of the market potential and our commitment to building the infrastructure that will allow us to serve these new markets, for a long time.
This year’s achievements didn’t happen overnight. What were key milestones along the way?
From a technology perspective, we started working on a patterned flow cell about four years ago. We tried several different ways to get it right, and we ran into brick wall after brick wall. Then in 2013 we had an incredible event where the patterned technology and the ability to manufacture it became a reality, and we found ways to be able to produce at scale.
At the same time, we had a chemistry ‘a-ha’ moment with the cluster generation process. We were able to develop a new method, where amplification occurs much faster than the seeding of new clusters. With the new process, once a DNA template is seeded in a well, it amplifies very fast, preventing other clusters from attaching themselves into that well. This really enabled us to get to the power of patterning, allowing us to both maximize cluster density and the number of wells occupied by a single cluster.
This is just the beginning of an incredible roadmap. I think over the next 5 years we will see patterning not only become ubiquitous in our portfolio, but also really push the boundaries of what’s possible.
Another seminal moment, starting in late 2011, was when our engineering teams came up with creative ideas for optical systems and started leveraging the consumer electronics and cell phone industries. They developed the early concepts of the optics that evolved into NextSeq. The HiSeq X Ten dominated the news this year, but the NextSeq is breathtaking on its own merit and will likely become the platform of choice in the clinic.
What do you think slipped under the radar?
Our industry has grown and will continue to grow by seeking more information [about the genome] for less cost, while at the same time giving scientists and clinicians the ability to look at the information and gain insights in new ways. We’re really investing heavily in software and I’m very encouraged about what’s going on with BaseSpace and NextBio. Ultimately a lot of value will be captured by helping people understand, analyse and make decisions with this underlying genomics technology.
BaseSpace is really an unsung hero. The amount of data being stored there is staggering, as is the ecosystem growing up around it. In 2014, the first non-genomics app was built for BaseSpace – for proteomics. It’s giving people the ability to look at proteins along with genomics, which really gives you a more holistic view of what’s going on in the cell.
We also have incredible things going on in basic research – exploring the boundaries of how to use and leverage cell free DNA and single cell sequencing, as well as reducing the amounts of DNA input (using our new sample prep capability) that will enable customers to do detailed analysis of small volumes of cancer tissue. This is a requirement for things like needle biopsies. All of these techniques and technologies are coming to bear.
You’ve seen a phenomenal amount of progress in the last decade. What excites you the most moving forward?
We’re seeing the fruition of an ecosystem created from ‘sample to answer’, which has been a thrust of the company for some time now. From sample to answer means – the answer for the clinician, the answer for the researcher, the answer for the farmer, the answer for the police station. I think we are driving answers, and it’s just an incredible time to be part of this industry.
There are 7 billion people on the planet, and there are trillions upon trillions of samples of DNA to be looked at. It’s just a question of the cost-benefit analysis of doing that. As we continue to drive the cost of sequencing down, the number of applications will continue to explode and the opportunity for us as a company will explode along with it.