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Jim Clark Gets a Genomics Gig

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Jim Clark Gets a Genomics Gig

He stunned Stanford University with a $150 million gift for biomedical technology development last year, and now Jim Clark has a stake in a private genomics venture.

The billionaire founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Health-eon/WebMD revealed this summer that he is an investor in DNA Sciences, a Silicon Valley firm (formerly called Kiva Genetics) that is seeking blood-sample donors. The company, whose directors include double-helix granddad James Watson, CuraGen founder Gregory Went, and Healtheon cofounder Hugh Rienhoff, says it will process volunteers’ DNA at its “state-of-the-art genotyping lab” in order to “find clinically relevant links between genetics and disease.”

Genome Technology caught up with Clark in Amsterdam via e-mail.

GT: You are one of several major players in the computer industry who are venturing into genomics and biology. What would you say is the impetus for the crossover?

CLARK: I have had an interest in this area since I was a student about 35 years ago. Discovering that Hugh Rienhoff, who was an early board member of Healtheon, specialized in genetics and wanted to start DNA Sciences piqued my interest even more. I believe that the future of genetics will not only enable personalized medicine but also allow disabling harmful viruses and enabling desired genetic alterations.

GT: What do you see as the biggest technological challenges facing the genomics industry?

CLARK: Security and public trust are essential before much can be done, but technologically, faster, lower cost sequencing techniques are required in order to bring genetic testing to a personal level such that an individual’s genome is typed. The business opportunity will arise when a clear, efficient genetically based test and treatment for a genetic condition is proven to work.

GT: How do you think the computer industry can help the genomics industry meet these challenges?

CLARK: Algorithms for storing and searching vast quantities of data and for genotyping and finding correlations between genotypes, diseases, and treatments would not be possible without high-speed computer technology. The genome could not have been determined without it. So it seems natural that people from a computer background would be partners with geneticists in this type of work. Computers make things faster and the business opportunity is in making valuable discoveries first. No amount of government funding can compete with the economic incentive of private enterprise, but at the same time the public trust will have to be demonstrated.

GT: What do you hope to see generated by your $150 million gift to Stanford’s BioX project?

CLARK: I hope that the BioX project will give rise to better bio-machine interfaces, better understanding of neurological systems, enhanced neuro-informatic systems, prostheses, finely controlled robotics, bio-robotics, and in general a future where the human organism is productively integrated with information and computer systems.

GT: What is your mission with DNA Sciences and where does that company fit into the broader genomics industry?

CLARK: DNA Sciences hopes to find correlations between genotypes, diseases, and treatments that will have value to the pharmaceutical industry. I introduced them to Healtheon/WebMD in the hopes that the diseased populations on the WebMD service would provide a suitably large audience of specific disease groups to determine a genetic basis if it exists. As treatments are tested that have a sensitivity to genotype, the DNA Sciences data should also be of value to the pharmaceutical trials. If specific treatments and drugs are more appropriate to specific genotypes, DNA Sciences will have developed the appropriate tests.