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Complete Genomics Starts Integrating Tech Development, Sales with BGI; Focus on Clinical Sequencing


Less than two months after being acquired by BGI-Shenzhen, Complete Genomics has started joint technology development with its new parent, is supporting BGI-led research projects, and has begun to integrate its sales force with BGI as it continues to serve existing customers of its human whole-genome sequencing service.

Longer term, the Mountain-View, Calif.-based company – now a wholly-owned subsidiary of BGI – plans to collaborate closely with BGI Health, BGI's clinical arm, to provide sequencing services to the clinical market.

Complete's long-term strategy remains the same as prior to the merger, according to Cliff Reid, who still serves as the firm's CEO. "We want to sequence a million whole human genomes as fast as possible, and we're developing all of our technology in that direction," he told In Sequence last week.

"In the long run, the clinical markets are going to support an awful lot of whole human genome sequencing, so that remains our primary goal and mission," he said, noting that BGI itself is in the process of "adding a substantial clinical component to their business."

Becoming part of BGI, with its vast resources, particularly in bioinformatics, and its network of subsidiaries or joint ventures in many countries, is helping Complete gain access to customer, markets, and applications "that we just never had the size to pursue," Reid said.

BGI-Shenzhen acquired Complete Genomics on March 18 through a cash tender offer to purchase all of Complete's outstanding shares of common stock for $3.15 per share, or about $117.6 million in total, followed by a short-form merger.

BGI first announced its plan to take over Complete Genomics last September (IS 9/18/2012) but had to overcome a number of regulatory hurdles, both in the US and in China (GWDN 1/7/2013 and 3/12/2013), as well as a counter-bid by Illumina, Complete's chief rival for human genome sequencing services (GWDN 11/27/2012).

Prior to the acquisition, Complete had been in dire financial straits as it was unable to attract enough large orders to become profitable. Last June, the company laid off 20 percent of its workforce in order to preserve its cash and said it was exploring strategic alternatives (IS 6/5/2012). At the same time, it delayed plans to double its sequencing capacity to 2,000 genomes per month.

Following the acquisition, Complete remains a US corporation, and many of its operational activities – such as finance, human resources, and IT – have stayed the same, Reid said. Integration with BGI has started in two areas, technology development and sales channels.

Joining forces with BGI Research, BGI's research project arm, has provided Complete Genomics, which still has about 200 employees − about the same as last summer − with unprecedented technology resources, both in biochemistry and bioinformatics, enabling it to "go a lot faster on our technology development projects," Reid said. Researchers from both organizations are now working in joint project teams.

Technologies under development are aimed at improving the speed of the chemistry, fluidics, and optics of Complete's sequencing platform. One project, for example, will apply microfluidics to DNA library preparation.

So far, Complete's proprietary sequencing technology, which combines DNA nanoball arrays with combinatorial probe-anchor ligation reads, remains in Mountain View, but the firm is "in discussions" about transferring it to BGI's facilities in China.

Up until now, BGI has relied heavily on Illumina's HiSeq platform for its sequencing services.

Complete also remains "very enthusiastic" about its long fragment read technology, which enables haplotyping of genomes, said Reid, noting that the firm is conducting a series of collaborative projects with several partners to further refine the method.

Besides integrating its R&D efforts with BGI Research, Complete has started to move several of its salespeople to BGI Tech, the commercial research services arm of BGI, and they are now helping to sell services in the US.

Complete continues to provide human genome sequencing services to existing customers but is not taking on any new customers at the moment, unless they have a "very strategically important" project, according to Reid.

Part of its sequencing capacity now supports projects at BGI Research, both for humans and other organisms. While in the past, Complete used to focus exclusively on human genome sequencing due to its limited resources, it can now "explore other organisms and other applications," Reid said. One example is a project to apply its long fragment read technology to the de novo assembly of plant genomes.

Complete also plans to offer sequencing services for clinical applications, and its "primary focus over the coming years will be working with BGI Health," a partnership that is just starting, Reid said. "That's really the direction of the company, and that's going to require a lot of coordination and integration with BGI Health."

For example, Complete had plans to obtain CLIA certification for its lab last year to enable it to provide clinical sequencing services, but Reid said there are "no specific plans" for this or other projects yet.

It is still unclear how BGI's ownership of Complete will affect its relationship with Illumina. "Obviously, Illumina and BGI have a very long-standing and good relationship, and Illumina and us have been much more head-on competitors," Reid said, "so I think that's something we're all working out, to figure out how the industry structure unfolds."

Given that the market for clinical applications of sequencing is expected to be "much bigger" than for research applications, "I think there is an awful lot of room in the clinical genomics market for many competitors," he said.