CHICAGO – In acquiring genomic data analytics firm SolveBio for an undisclosed amount last week, Precision for Medicine's QuartzBio unit saw a chance to scale up its own business to meet its global ambitions.
Frederick, Maryland-based QuartzBio currently has customers in North America and Western and Central Europe, but expects to move into India in the second quarter of this year, according to General Manager Scott Marshall.
The acquisition allows QuartzBio to bring SolveBio's genomic and clinical data analytics technology into its own multiomics data integration platform. This will augment QuartzBio's offerings for biomarker discovery in therapeutic areas including oncology, autoimmune disease, and central nervous system disease.
"We saw that the technologies SolveBio had would enable us to continue to scale at the pace that the demand in the market was requiring," Marshall said. He also spoke highly of the small team SolveBio had.
New York-based SolveBio had just eight employees at the time of the acquisition, bringing QuartzBio's headcount to around 100. Marshall expects the firm to grow to around 150 employees by Q3 by adding people across all departments and functions, including software development, data engineering, customer support, sales, and marketing to support the international expansion.
Marshall said the acquisition will allow QuartzBio to offer customers a better user experience such as by providing more integrated information at the reporting stage or by helping them configure and run their own data pipelines.
"The [SolveBio] technology had a ton of potential, and we thought, we're working in the same space," Marshall said. "Sometimes it's better to just come together, and we can accomplish more as one than we can as two."
SolveBio staked its reputation on data harmonization.
"What we found was that large users of genomic data were getting their data from many different places," including diagnostic laboratories, sequencing facilities, and public repositories of genetic variant data, according to David Caplan, newly minted VP of SaaS solutions at QuartzBio. "I think the big challenge they had was how did they harmonize it so that scientists can work with it together and compare across [datasets]," said Caplan, who cofounded SolveBio and served as chief technology officer before the acquisition.
SolveBio, like so many other companies, sought to automate genomic analysis for companies without a lot of bioinformatics expertise.
"We saw a lot of adoption by translational scientists, people who weren't necessarily programmers, but were willing to do things that they couldn't do before," Caplan said.
SolveBio could also help its clients create workflows if they needed that service.
As an example of harmonization that SolveBio performs, Caplan mentioned the Human Genome Variation Society (HGVS) variant description format.
"Within that language, there's many different ways to describe a genetic mutation, and end users might have adopted different versions of that format, based on what their other software vendors support," he explained. SolveBio's role has been to simplify comparison and benchmarking.
In a 2019 paper in JCO Precision Oncology, AstraZeneca researchers used the SolveBio Genomic Intelligence Platform to compare differences in gene panel tests for detecting mutations in circulating tumor DNA.
"That was … a very clear use case for our platform, which was just assembling data from different vendors and harmonizing them together for the purpose of comparison," Caplan said.
One thing the company did struggle with was growth. SolveBio started in 2013 and remained small, with no more than 10 employees, for a decade, according to Caplan.
"As a small team, we weren't able to grow at the same speed or rate as QuartzBio was. We were able to stay lean and grow," Caplan said. "But at a certain point … we had to make a decision. Are we going to raise money and really try to grow or do we want to find a partner, someone who can really kind of help us bring our products to the next level?"
In surveying the market, SolveBio decided that QuartzBio was the right partner with "complementary technologies and who can really take our products to the next level," Caplan said.
SolveBio's customer base evolved over the last decade from hospitals and diagnostic firms to large pharmaceutical companies. The company markets its platform as being able to integrate multiomics data and perform genomic and clinical data analytics. However, the technology is capable of analyzing "almost anything within the realm of biomarker data," Caplan said. The focus on genomics was largely because of the expertise of the founding team.
In the early years, the SolveBio platform was essentially a repository for public genomic data and a reference tool. Customers eventually began asking for something to manage commercial data.
"So we ended up building a system for private data management and harmonization of data, mostly genomic data," Caplan said. "Data for clinical trials, typically, that was more like genetic mutations, genetic variants, and the reference data associated with that."
A turning point came in 2016, when SolveBio integrated its genomic data analysis platform with that of Seven Bridges Genomics. The company also had product integration agreements with the likes of Elsevier, DNAnexus, Ranomics, Amplion, and MedGenome.
QuartzBio is only slightly older than SolveBio. It was founded in Switzerland in 2012 before being acquired by Precision for Medicine in 2018. The firm still maintains offices in Geneva and Monthey, Switzerland.
Precision for Medicine, itself a unit of Precision Medicine Group, has been growing through acquisition for several years.
In 2019, Precision for Medicine acquired artificial intelligence technology developer SimplicityBio and integrated its technology. The same year, the company also purchased biospecimen providers ProMedDx and GLAS in an effort to expand its biomarker services offerings.
Earlier acquisitions included German specialty lab Epiontis — provider of epigenetic immune cell assays for clinical trial immune monitoring — as well as liquid biopsy technology developer ApoCell and contract research organization ACT Oncology.
Marshall said that prior to approaching SolveBio, QuartzBio took a step back and thought about its mission.
"We want to enable folks to be able to use data to fulfill their strategic objectives in an organization," he said. "We're all driving towards the same thing, which is to enable the development of game-changing therapies that patients need."
Marshall said that QuartzBio is particularly "excited" about the fact that SolveBio built its technology to work with any type of biomarker data generated in clinical trials, not just genomics data.
In harmonizing data, there is always the risk of creating yet another data silo. Caplan said that SolveBio tried to avoid this pitfall by following existing standards rather than creating one of its own.
The startup was for a time involved with the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH) standards development organization. "What we wanted to do was make our tool programmatically accessible so it was interoperable with other systems," Caplan said.
Marshall said that QuartzBio has long been cognizant of the silo issue. "SolveBio, in our mind, significantly enhanced our capability to [be data-agnostic] as we look to the future," he said.
Any coordination with Precision for Medicine with the newly acquired SolveBio technology will come later.
"Our immediate focus is creating a seamless integration [of SolveBio], which is ongoing at both the technology and the people level," Marshall said. "We need to get both of those right."
QuartzBio already does interact with its parent company in terms of providing services to support lab services and clinical trials. "We are constantly evaluating how technology and specifically how biotechnology can be used to further advance global efforts of the [Precision for Medicine] family," Marshall added.