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Japanese Software Startup Awakens to Help Consumers Analyze Genomes, Companies Develop Apps

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Japanese genomic software startup Awakens wants to build an ecosystem for consumers to interpret their genomic data and for companies to build apps to offer personalized services based on those data.

Earlier this week, the Tokyo-based company, which recently opened an office at the Illumina Accelerator facility in the Mission Bay area of San Francisco, said it launched its first product, called Genomic Explorer, a web-based platform that lets individuals upload their SNP genotyping data from a testing service such as 23andMe or Ancestry.com, to view and analyze it.

The company is also working on an application program interface, called Genome Link, that businesses can use to create apps to offer consumers personalized services based on their genome.

Awakens was founded earlier this year by CEO Tomohiro Takano, COO Yuta Matsuda, CTO Kensuke Numakura, and scientific advisor Kudo Takamasa. Besides the four cofounders, the firm employs a number of contractors and is currently looking to hire a manager for the Genome Link project.

Takano previously worked for M3, a Japanese company that offers internet-based services to healthcare professionals, medical businesses, and the general public, including a large physician portal. At M3, Takano led the development of a genomic healthcare platform for G-TAC, a corporate venture of M3.

Matsuda hails from Japanese gaming company DeNA, where he helped develop the consumer genetic testing service Mycode, which Takano said is currently the most popular service of its kind in Japan. Bioinformatician Numakura has experience developing web-based applications and open-source code for analyzing genomic information, and Takamasa is a graduate student in chemical and systems biology at the Stanford School of Medicine.

So far, the firm has raised a total of about $450,000 from venture capital firm 500 Startups Japan, M3, the Japanese Organization for Medical Device Development, and a number of angel investors, including Hiroaki Kitano, the head of the Systems Biology Institute in Tokyo and the president and CEO of Sony Computer Science Laboratories. In addition, the company is expecting to receive a grant from the Japanese government in September.

Takano said the company is in talks with investors, both in Japan and in the US, and hopes to raise several million dollars in additional funding early next year.

In the US, the firm is located at the Illumina Accelerator, although it is not part of the Accelerator program for genomic startups that comes with an investment from Illumina. 

Earlier this week, Awakens launched Genome Explorer, initially only in the US, though it has plans to roll the platform out in Japan later this year. The reason for starting out in the US is that it has a more advanced genomics market, Takano said, including several million 23andMe and Ancestry.com customers with existing genomic data. This is in contrast to Japan, where genetic testing providers generally do not provide raw genomic data to their customers, he added.

Genome Explorer is Awakens' first product and targets consumers who want to analyze their genomic data beyond what services like 23andMe provide. "The concept of Genomic Explorer is kind of like a Google Maps of the genome," Takano said.

Users can upload their data to the website — currently for free, though the company plans to make it a fee-based service in the future — and browse the DNA variant, organized by chromosome. Users retain ownership of their data, and Awakens stressed that its server is HIPAA compliant.

At the moment, the system only takes SNP genotyping data but it is also compatible with whole-genome sequencing data, which customers will be able to upload in the future. In addition, Awakens is partnering with laboratories to provide whole-genome sequencing services to customers who do not have genomic data yet.

The platform also provides a database of annotations. By clicking on "pins" that are attached to specific variants, users can find out about traits that have been associated with that variant in the literature. Another click takes them to the underlying scientific paper in PubMed.

Traits are organized in five categories — physical traits, personality, intelligence, food and nutrition, and sports. Each trait is also connected to a "knowledgebase" where users can find out in which ethnic populations variants have been associated with a trait, and how reliable the evidence is. The "extraversion" trait, for example, leads to a single variant on chromosome 19 that has been linked to "intermediate extraversion" in a European population and has low reliability.

The company has a team of curators who use "a rigorous protocol" to weed out bad studies and who do parallel checks to ensure that the annotations are accurate, said Kristina Chou, Awakens' business development lead.

Awakens is also working on an internal annotation database, Takano said, which it plans to integrate with Genomic Explorer in the future.

Disease-related traits are currently not included in the database, so the company does not run afoul of US Food and Drug Administration regulations, but it might offer this type of information in other countries, such as Japan. Ultimately, Awakens plans to establish partnerships with physicians in order to be able to provide health-related information in the US, too.

Contrary to other consumer testing services, which provide reports with lists of traits and variants, Genome Explorer users can browse through their genome and click on variants they are interested in, or search for traits they want to know about. "We want people to be able to use that information on their own and not be hindered by the structure of existing genetic testing services," Chou said.

Since the prelaunch of Genome Explorer about a month ago, more than 700 individuals have uploaded their genomic data, and Awakens is using their feedback to improve the service and make it more user friendly.

Awakens' second product, Genome Link, is still in the works and will allow service providers — for example, a company providing nutritional advice — "to incorporate a genomics aspect to their service," Chou said. When a user comes across a genetic variant that makes them want to take action, for example, "we want to provide an ecosystem where a service app developer and companies providing services in other fields can move into the genomics space," to provide personalized services, Chou explained. Genome Link will enable providers to connect with its annotation database to incorporate the information into their service.

In Japan, Awakens is already starting to create a number of genomics applications with companies in the areas of pharmacogenomics, education, and nutrigenomics, Takano said.

While some may see similarities with Illumina's spinoff Helix, which provides an online marketplace for consumer genomics applications, Genome Link will be very different, according to Awakens.

Earlier this month, for example, Helix said it is working with select Illumina Accelerator startups that are developing consumer-focused products. But while Helix functions more like an app store, Awakens' Genome Link will provide an environment for app development, Takano said. "We support software solutions, and sometimes create applications together [with clients], so they can become a product on the Helix platform" or other marketplaces like it, he explained. "So, basically, we're more of an app maker."

Next month, Awakens plans to launch Genome Link as part of a hackathon in downtown San Francisco, during which it hopes to bring together engineers, service providers with ideas for genomics, and designers. The company has already held similar events in Japan and at Stanford University.

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