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UPDATE: Ignite Institute Mulls Technologies, Says Launch Remains On Track

This is an updated edition of a report originally published June 21, correcting the prospective location of the institute.

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — The startup Ignite Institute is evaluating technologies in advance of its planned launch later this year, with an eye to joining vendors in co-creating the tools it will use toward its mission of translating personalized medicine discoveries, President and CEO Dietrich Stephan told GenomeWeb Daily News.

"We are still actively mentally engaged in how we're going to put the technology foundation in place, and developing strategic partnerships with companies," Stephan said during a visit to GenomeWeb's offices. "The notion of Ignite is that it's a neutral Switzerland; we will work with the best-in-class in an agnostic way."

Stephan also said the institute remained on track to locate a permanent facility and begin operations despite setbacks that have included the loss of much of its previously-announced funding, and subsequent collapse of original plans to open in Virginia's Fairfax County.

The setbacks, Stephan said, will not change Ignite's plan to purchase 100 SOLiD 4 sequencing systems from Life Technologies, creating the largest next-generation genomic sequencing facility in North America — a deal announced by the company in January. At the time, the company said installation of the units would "begin in the first quarter and continue through the balance of 2010."

"We will be taking delivery of those instruments the day we open the doors on the institute," Stephan told GWDN.

In addition to Life Technologies, Stephan said, Ignite is looking to forge relationships with other companies. One is RainDance Technologies, a microdroplet technologies company based in Lexington, Mass. Stephan accompanied RainDance President and CEO Roopom Banerjee, who discussed his company's upcoming technologies during the visit.

Stephan said Ignite was a prospective customer of RainDance, attracted to several of the company's technologies in development. One example: Over the next couple of years or more, Banerjee said, RainDance plans to launch at the end of this year an "Ultra Deep" sequencing front-end product to get into deep regions of cancer genomes.

"I love the genome partitioning application, both in a research and a clinical diagnostic setting … [as well as] the notion of personalized drug screening, although as I understand it, it's probably a ways off," said Stephan, who is also co-founder and chief science officer of direct-to-consumer genomics firm Navigenics, which shares investors with RainDance.

"We are absolutely excited about buying machines, but we haven't committed to buying anything yet" from RainDance, he added.

Stephan said Ignite Institute foresees relationships, whether with RainDance or other vendors, that go beyond buying new tools and technologies.

"If Roopom and his colleagues all have us as a co-development partner in that space, it's something we would be really excited about," Stephan said. "We'd love to be one of those early technology adaptors, where we'll take an alpha beta unit, and we'll turn it on and we'll bang on it, and we'll give feedback and improve the technologies so that ultimately it gives the right answers not only for us but for other people."

Stephan noted that he embraced early adoption of technologies while deputy director for discovery research and director of the neurogenomics division at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, where he served for five years until 2008. At TGen, he said, his research group accounted at one point for one-third of Affymetrix's revenues, and generated throughput on its equipment that exceeded that of Merck.

Stephan also confirmed that Ignite Institute was looking into the equipment of GnuBio, a Cambridge, Mass., startup that is developing a microfluidics-based sequencer which, using picoliter-sized drops, would read a human genome for $30 in reagent costs [See GWDN sister publication In Sequence].

"It's a delightful potential application out of this foundational platform. We're talking to them," Stephan said. "If they can deliver a $30 genome, we'll take it."

Details of how many and what kinds of machines Ignite would acquire, he added, are still being worked out. "We committed to taking a machine when it's built," he said.

Ignite plans to house the tools and technologies it buys, and those it co-develops, in a facility whose staffing, location, and other specifics Stephan said are in the works. He confirmed the institute had talked to officials in Maryland's Montgomery County — who have publicly expressed a desire to attract Ignite, but had not disclosed additional details — as well as other locations Stephan would not name.

In a departure from interviews earlier this year, Stephan said Ignite would not publicly discuss details of its new facility until they are finalized — something he anticipated would occur "in weeks, not months." The institute joined officials from Fairfax County and Virginia — including Gov. Robert McDonnell and his predecessor, Timothy Kaine — in announcing the original Fairfax County plan last November through a photo-op.

Ignite was forced to retreat from its original project after Inova Health Systems withdrew a commitment to provide $25 million over five years to the institute, citing in a statement earlier this month "the scope and scale of the project and the time needed for capital development in the current market." Inova's pullout, in turn, prompted Fairfax County to retreat from its own plan to partially finance the permanent facility by issuing up to $150 million in Fairfax County Economic Development Authority industrial revenue bonds.

McDonnell and Virginia lawmakers agreed to give the institute $25 million in grants tied to the original project's planned creation of at least 415 jobs over five years. It is unclear whether Ignite can use the funding for an updated version of the project if it were in Virginia.

"We're in the process of bringing the institute in for a nice, firm landing," Stephan said. "We're bringing it in for a landing this year. But we don't know where we're going to land this thing."

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