CHICAGO – Omecu, a new spinout from the University of Edinburgh, promises to "democratize" genomic data analysis by addressing the barriers of cost, complexity, and infrastructure that often hinder access to genomic datasets across international borders.
"We really want to be able to simplify that for researchers to allow them, provided the data holder gives them access, to access any dataset anywhere in the world … to run sophisticated analysis on that data in a cost-effective manner," CEO Les Gaw explained. "That could be running queries against different datasets in different countries, and then analyzing and comparing those all from the comforts of their desk thousands of miles away from these databases."
Gaw, a Scottish entrepreneur, founded Omecu along with Oriol Canela-Xandri of the University of Edinburgh's Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit and Konrad Rawlik of the school's Roslin Institute. Canela-Xandri and Rawlik had been collaborating on the computation engine and web platform that underly Omecu for several years before they met Gaw through Edinburgh Innovations, the university's commercialization arm, which has been funding their work since 2019.
In addition, Canela-Xandri and Rawlik have received £930,000 ($1.3 million) in funding through the MRC and the university's Data-Driven Initiative and Fast Track Mentor programs. The Data-Driven Initiative provided a convertible loan worth an additional £15,000 ($20,250). Also, Innovate UK, a British government agency, recently awarded Omecu's founders £288,000 ($388,700), which the startup will use to improve its prototype and move toward a commercial release. The company will seek further investment as it grows.
The fledgling firm has a team of six who are working for Omecu while keeping their academic appointments now, but plans to expand over the coming year, Gaw said.
Canela-Xandri, a chancellor's fellow at the university, has been at Edinburgh for about eight years now. While he has held different titles during that time, his primary focus has remained constant: developing methods for analyzing large genetic datasets such as the UK Biobank.
Omecu's technology can perform genome-wide association studies, Mendelian randomization analysis, meta-analysis, and visualizations. For security reasons, the analyst never sees the underlying data other than in summary charts and plots, Canela-Xandri said.
The platform has a modular design so Omecu will be able to add new capabilities and analysis types in the future.
Because individual-level data never leaves the host site, once a user is authorized on the Omecu platform and by a data host, according to Canela-Xandri, it is easy to extend access beyond the initial permission. For example, he said, a researcher can run a GWAS for a specific disease or for smoking status, then perform a Mendelian randomization. The same user can then run the same analysis on a different dataset to create a meta-analysis.
"Based on the results, the researcher can easily go back and change how the disease is defined, and also remove or add individuals based on some arbitrary parameters" like those taking the same medication or living in the same region, Canela-Xandri said.
Omecu said its technology will accelerate drug discovery and personalized medicine, while also improving data security.
Canela-Xandri said that the new computation engine represents a major step forward, since a "standard" analysis tool from the UK Biobank Research Analysis Platform might take a day or two to run a genome-wide association study on UK Biobank data, whereas Omecu's technology cuts that down to a couple of seconds. The company has not yet published any information documenting these improvements, though.
Canela-Xandri and Rawlik created a new system to compress datasets to accelerate performance. "If we didn't have that data structure and if we didn't have that compute engine, then you would be back to using the existing capabilities, which take a couple of days," Gaw said.
Shorter processing time also means lower computing costs. "Instead of having a supercomputer or big cluster or a high cloud cost, the approach that we have developed will drive that cost down" by one to two orders of magnitude, Gaw explained.
Data owners can put Omecu's compute engine on their servers or in their own cloud environments, and authorized users can then access the technology through a web browser from anywhere in the world. For security reasons, there is no outbound connection to the Edinburgh startup.
Omecu does not have formal relationships with any major cloud providers yet, though there are some discussions underway. "We are still very much early-stage," Gaw said.
The firm has developed an application programming interface that keeps data safe with its owner, so an outside researcher never needs to download the information. "The user gets the results of the analysis, but they never get the actual underlying data," Gaw said.
He added that Omecu could encrypt data if asked to do so, though that would come at the cost of slightly slower performance.
Gaw said that Omecu's target market is organizations with large genomic datasets they need to analyze and share or that want to enable others to analyze their data. This might include pharmaceutical companies, biobanks, and academic researchers, particularly those involved in international collaborations.
At this point, Omecu has developed a yet-unnamed prototype that has been running for about four months. Gaw said the firm is starting to add features that would make the software commercially viable, including user management controls. Omecu expects to start working with early adopters in the next three months, with an eye toward a full product release in the fourth quarter.
Currently, only University of Edinburgh researchers are testing the prototype, but Gaw said conversations have begun with potential external beta testers.
Omecu is looking to sell its product globally, not just in the UK or within Europe, though the firm has not finalized its pricing strategy. "I think it's fair to say we've got global ambitions," Gaw said.