CHICAGO – A Taiwanese bioinformatics startup chose an unusual venue to announce itself to the world and introduce its first product this month: CES, formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show.
At the Taiwan Tech Arena Pavilion at CES in Las Vegas last week, GeneASIC Technologies unveiled its decidedly non-consumer-facing Next-Generation Sequencing Analysis Acceleration Platform (NGSAAP), a combination hardware-software product that promises to conduct secondary analysis on 30X whole-genome sequencing data in about 30 minutes, thanks to hardware acceleration and proprietary algorithms. A forthcoming companion product will support secondary analysis of long-read sequences.
GeneASIC went to CES for several reasons, most notably because the company hopes its products will help genome sequencing become more mainstream. The firm cited efforts like the UK's Newborn Genomes Programme, the National Institutes of Health's All of Us research initiative in the US, the 1+ Million Genomes initiative in the European Union, and Australia's Genomics Health Futures Mission as part of a trend toward population-scale sequencing.
"Our goal is to promote sequencing technologies [so that they move] from rare to routine," said Tammy Huang, GeneASIC product manager. "We hope that one day, sequencing is not just technology in the lab. It actually should be technology [that is] accessible for everyone."
She also noted that some of the technology the company is relying on is already popular among consumer electronics manufacturers. GeneASIC gets its name from the hardware behind its planned second product, an appliance based on an application-specific integrated circuit, or ASIC.
That product, meant to support long-read sequencing, should be as small as a USB thumb drive, according to Huang. The size would make it suitable for field use alongside compact sequencers such as Oxford Nanopore Technologies' MinIon, which also features an ASIC, she said.
The current offering, NGSAAP, uses field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chips from Xilinx, a Silicon Valley company run by Taiwanese American CEO Victor Peng. Huang said that both FPGA chips and ASICs are "quite general" in environments like CES.
Taiwan is a global hub for semiconductor chip manufacturing, and Huang said that GeneASIC is using its academic connections to have conversations with several "big players" to select an ASIC supplier for the long-read product. The firm expects to have an early version of the ASIC-based appliance ready by the end of 2022.
While it is too early to make any promises, Huang expects the long-read appliance to be even faster than the 30-minute turnaround time from raw sequence to VCF file that the newly released NGSAAP offers.
GeneASIC is a 2020 spinout of National Taiwan University and what is now known as National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University. The firm does not currently have a CEO and is being led by CTO Chia-Hsiang Yang and CSO Jui-Hung Hung.
To date, GeneASIC has raised $1 million, led by Taiwanese computer memory chipmaker AP Memory. The firm said it has opened a new funding round and is seeking additional investors to support development of the ASIC product with an unspecified amount of capital.
Both NGSAAP and the yet-unnamed appliance for long-read sequencing are meant to be installed locally to provide fast, accurate on-premises sequencing analysis by virtue of the chips' processing speed and GeneASIC's proprietary software.
The small form factor will make it suitable for smaller research institutions and community health centers, according to R&D Director Alex Lee. The locally hosted appliance should reduce computation time and energy consumption by not having to send whole-genome FASTQ files to cloud platforms, Lee said.
Additionally, local installations can improve security by precluding the need to transfer large, sensitive datasets over the internet, Lee said, though some cloud companies say their technology is highly secure thanks to encryption.
Huang said that the company's primary target market will be hospitals and research institutes that are already familiar with sequencing technology. With NGSAAP now out, GeneASIC is reaching out to several unspecified organizations and institutes to perform a clinical assessment of its first release and eventually refine the product.
Eventually, though, GeneASIC wants to get its technology into all kinds of healthcare settings, even primary care clinics and consumer genetic testing companies. "We are trying to [make] it more deployable, in many scenarios," Lee said.
"We hope that one day, sequencing will be like a routine checkup," Huang said. "Maybe one day, genetic testing will be just part of your [health] assessment. That's our goal."