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Investors Back BioNano’s Big Picture Approach

In an era of personalized medicine, customized gene mapping is crucial for drug developers and researchers to match the right treatments to the right patients — which is why San Diego-based BioNano Genomics Inc. just attracted one of the largest rounds of private financing in the U.S. life sciences sector this year.

The $53 million Series C round was led by Novartis Venture Fund and Legend Capital, along with a slew of repeat and strategic new investors. The funds are intended to support commercialization of BioNano’s new genome-mapping platform, the Irys System.

The company has been attracting some serious capital over the last few years. Including this round, the company has raised $92 million since BioNano moved to San Diego three years ago as part of a company turnaround.

Legend Capital, a Beijing-based venture fund affiliated with Lenovo’s controlling shareholder, is a strategic financial partner, according to Erik Holmlin, BioNano’s president and CEO.

“We have identified the Chinese market as being one that holds a lot of promise for genomics and unique instrumentation like ours, so we sought out a Chinese financial partner,” Holmlin said. “Legend is one of the top three private equity and venture capital firms in all of China, and they will help us navigate the expansion of our commercial and operational footprint in there.”

Aside from geographic strategy, Holmlin said his investors, which include mutual funds and cross-over investors, could prime the company for a potential public offering.

The Science

Scientists have been mapping the genome for years, analyzing bits of DNA that help drug developers — and eventually doctors — treat patients based on genetic information. But BioNano is adding a new gadget to the researcher’s toolbox.

Think of the genome as a giant jigsaw puzzle, and the DNA fragments under review as the jigsaw pieces. But instead of a handful of cardboard that transforms into Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, the genome puzzle includes hundreds of millions of data fragments that form an organism’s genetic map.

Today, companies like Illumina Inc. and Life Technologies, a ThermoFisher Scientific company, are mapping the genome in tiny pieces of DNA called “short reads.” These small sections of data help researchers get an extremely detailed look at single base pairs — an approach that has been coined “next generation” sequencing.

BioNano, however, has taken a fundamentally different tactic to analyzing the genome. Instead of chopping the strands into small fragments, the Irys System uncoils DNA molecules into long strands that give researchers an opportunity to map structural variations, such as the location of a gene on a chromosome, or stretches of DNA that may be repeated, inverted or deleted. These structural variations do, after all, wind up causing a number of diseases, including cancer.

Holmlin said the Irys System is a standalone instrument but complements other sequencing machines like Illumina’s HiSeq and MiSeq.

“You can generate the physical architecture of the genome — how it’s laid out and organized — with the Irys System,” Holmlin said. “Then, if you’re interested in understanding what the single base picture looks like, you can layer the Illumina data on top of it, which gives you a complete picture of the genome.”

The Customers

Holmlin said the company is primarily selling the Irys to academic research centers that have programs focused on genome analysis. The area of structural variation is most studied in human clinical research and in agricultural biology, Holmlin said, so BioNano’s customers include many of the top genomics research centers in the world.

Customers thus far include the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health Intramural Sequencing Center and Genoscope, the French national sequencing center. In total, BioNano has 30 systems in place around the globe, and Holmlin hopes to increase that number to 100 in the next year and a half.

BioNano is also developing a next-generation instrument that will have a much greater throughput — measured by how many human genomes can be processed per day. The current system can only process one, but the new system is expected to exceed 10 genomes per day.

Eventually, Holmlin said, the company would like to expand beyond academic applications and delve into the clinical world.

“Soon, this will become part of the solution for patient management,” Holmlin said. “So we will be introducing the platform into the diagnostics market, as well.”


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