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Israeli Ag-bio Firm NRGene Seeks to Build Business on Proprietary Data Analysis Platform


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Israeli firm NRGene is seeking to build a business in the agricultural biotechnology market by selling licenses and offering analysis services on a proprietary informatics technology that the company initially developed and used to support research in the seed market.

The company was founded in 2010 by Gil Ronen, president and CEO, and Guy Kol, vice president of research and development. Shortly after NRGene was first formed, Kol told GenomeWeb that the company joined forces with the Makhteshim Agan Group, an ag-bio chemicals company also based in Israel that at the time was exploring opportunities in the seed market and sought a technology partner to help it develop improved varieties to sell. NRGene signed an exclusive agreement with the company and the partnership lasted four years until the Makhteshim Agan group was acquired by the China National Chemical Corporation in 2011 and its focus shifted to new business areas under new ownership.

That freed NRGene to move out on its own in the market and begin offering software that it had developed more broadly, Kol said. It did so officially at the start of this year and has spent the intervening months wrapping its technology into specific products that enable customers to assemble complex plant genomes in a rapid, cost-efficient manner.

Currently, the company's portfolio includes two proprietary products. The first of these, called DeNovoMagic, comprises algorithms that are used to reassemble repetitive, polyploidy, and heterozygote plant genomes from cotton, wheat, and other kinds of commercial crops from scratch using only short-read Illumina sequence data. According to the company, the software supports quick and accurate reconstruction of reference genomes.

NRGene announced this week that it successfully used the platform to map five novel complex maize genomes from the most commercially successful, publicly available lines. Where existing alignment-based assemblies have taken months and years to complete, NRGene claims that with its software, it was able to construct very detailed and highly accurate assemblies for the maize genomes in under a week for each genome.

NRGene's second solution is called GenoMagic. It's a proprietary cloud-based software system based on the Hadoop infrastructure that provides researchers with tools to catalog, organize, and analyze genomic data from thousands of individual plants in their projects. They can also pull in genetic information from external repositories and analyze their information in the context of the external data.

NRGene plans to highlight the benefits of its technology at two workshops during next month's Plant & Animal Genome Conference in San Diego. These workshops will feature presentations from academic customers such as Edward Buckler, whose laboratory at Cornell University uses the software to study the maize genomes. Other academic customers presenting at PAG include groups from the University of Illinois and Tel Aviv University, who will discuss projects involving maize and wheat, respectively. In addition to academia, NRGene's tools are currently being used by a number of large unnamed international seed and tree companies, and smaller ag-bio firms developing vegetables and food crops.

NRGene sells licenses to both solutions and also provides services for customers who prefer not to run their analyses themselves. Pricing for its assembly service using DeNovoMagic varies by the size of the genome being assembled. Assembling a maize genome, for example, costs about $120,000, Kol said. The company offers a discount price of $60,000 for academics who agree to let NRGene include their assembled genomes in their internal database and share the data with other academic clients. Turnaround times for the service depend on the crop. It takes about two months to generate data from maize samples, for example — this part of the process is handled by a third party provider — and an additional two weeks to wrap up the project, with the actual analysis component taking about five days, Kol said.

There isn't a preset price for licenses to DeNovoMagic because NRGene typically works with clients who choose this option to tailor the system to their needs. The final cost is determined on a case-by-case basis.

This particular solution will face the stiffest competition of NRGene's two products in the ag-bio bioinformatics marketplace. It will have to contend with analysis services, including plant genome analysis service, from BGI, as well as offerings from companies such as DNA Landmarks, a subsidiary of BASF Plant Science. The company also competes with KeyGene, whose menu of services includes analysis for new trait discovery and improvement as well as phenotyping; and Computomics, which offers NGS analysis services such as assembly, gene expression, and genomic selection. NRGene will also compete with the internal IT division of the large seed companies it targets.

However, what sets NRGene apart, according to Kol, is that it's the only company that offers complex genome assembly for crops such as wheat, oats, and corn as a commercial service. It plans to stay ahead by making that part of its offering better and more efficient. "We are really focusing on delivering value on that side of the equation," he said.

Pricing for licenses to the GenoMagic system varies depending on the number of users at the customer site as well as how much functionality the client wants included in the system, Kol said. Customers could, for example, pay for the ability to explore their maize genomes in the context of other data. If they wanted additional capabilities such as support trait mapping, those could be made available for an extra cost. The maximum price for full functionality of the GenoMagic system is close to $100,000 a month, Kol said, but that's for "a very high end" system that best suits very large organizations, he noted.