Agricultural genomes don’t get the fame or attention that their human and model organism counterparts do, but that’s just fine with Nathan Lakey, president and CEO of Orion Genomics. “Right now, ag biotech on the street isn’t being valued as high as it’s going to be,” he says. But on the plus side, that means his agricultural genomics company “can kind of have a low profile and crank away at building very valuable intellectual property positions before there’s a lot of attention.”
Lakey, 34, was directing DNA sequencing at Millennium Pharmaceuticals when Washington University’s Rick Wilson tapped him with an idea. Lakey had been at Millennium for more than three years and headed up a group that started at five and was projected to grow to 55 by the time he left. “My passion was functional and structural genomics,” Lakey says.
The more he worked, the more he realized that human genomics would soon be past those stages, and Millennium was in the process of shifting to lead discovery. After collaborating on a project with Monsanto, he was bitten by the ag bug and its nearly endless possibilities — so many organisms to sequence and study.
Enter Wilson. “Rick was interested in giving a go at a startup,” Lakey recalls. So were Richard McCombie and Rob Martienssen of Cold Spring Harbor and John McPherson of Wash U. Together, they founded Orion three years ago in St. Louis.
The basis of the company is a technology called Gene Thresher, which eliminates methylated fragments of DNA instead of relying on ESTs as a way to sort out the junk. “We’re able to get rid of almost everything that’s not a gene,” Lakey says. This enables them to study rare genes that haven’t appeared in EST libraries.
Orion now has nine full-time employees in addition to several consultants. With such a small staff, all the sequencing is done elsewhere. “It’s funny that a guy who started with sequencing is now outsourcing his sequencing,” Lakey says. But what they are doing is building a critical mass: with a DOE grant in hand and several other partnerships close to being finalized, the company is looking to come into its own in the near future.
— Meredith Salisbury