NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Startup Clear Labs launched this week with plans to focus on next-generation sequencing-based food quality testing. The Menlo Park, California-based firm raised $6.5 million in a Series A private financing round and announced that it is offering its first product, Clear View, in private beta mode.
Co-founders Sasan Amini and Mahni Ghorashi, who also serve as CEO and chief marketing officer, respectively, told GenomeWeb that they founded Clear Labs in 2013 because the price of sequencing had dropped low enough that it could be applied to other markets aside from genetics research.
"We saw an opportunity to use our [genomics and software] expertise and NGS technology to introduce disruption to the food industry," Amini said.
Before founding Clear Labs, Amini was a research scientist at Illumina and Ghorashi was head of marketing at genomics informatics firm Bina Technologies.
Ghorashi said they wanted to focus on the food industry for a number of reasons. The food industry is "suffering from low margins, a lack of product differentiation, and a lack of transparency both for retailers and manufacturers when it comes to their supply chains, and also consumers when it comes to what they're buying and eating for themselves and families," he said.
The firm will use its recently completed financing to roll out the Clear View product and to expand its scientific and software engineering team, Ghorashi said.
Clear Labs plans to develop products that rely on NGS to screen food items and determine their genetic makeup. The company's expertise, however, is the informatics. It has been building up a database of various food product sequences, including items it has sequenced itself as well as publicly available data from the National Center of Biotechnology Information and the Canadian Biodiversity Institute.
Each product corresponds with a genomic marker that serves as a barcode. The database includes plant and animal sources that people consume on a daily basis, as well as bacteria and fungi that are important to the food industry.
Clear View uses PCR and NGS to target an undisclosed number of specific genomic loci that give taxonomic information about the product, and combines that genomic information with data such as expiration date, lot number, and the label claims. The sequence data is then compared to the firm's database to determine the composition. The firm also screens for off-label additives such as hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics, and tests the nutritional components.
A second version of Clear View will incorporate screening for genetically modified organisms and more food-related pathogens, Amini said. GMO screening will involve using sequencing to look for specific promoters or terminators associated with the introduction of GMO elements or agrobacteria that are commonly used to transfer DNA elements into plants.
The company plans to market its services for most any food item, not just those that are typically tested for bacteria contamination, like meat items, Amini said.
"We can test packaged food, which doesn't necessarily have a high risk of bacteria contamination, but might suffer from issues in terms of the quality of ingredients, absence or substitution of certain ingredients, or other quality issues," he said.
Currently, Clear Labs is marketing its test as a service to manufacturers and retailers to be run either in its own laboratory or a traditional food-testing laboratory. Ghorashi said that the firm has established relationships with a number of food testing laboratories and will license its sequencing workflow to those laboratories or a laboratory of the customer's choice. For smaller orders, Clear Labs can do sequencing in house on its Illumina MiSeq system.
As the company scales, Ghorashi said the model will be primarily be an outsourced one. Clear Labs "specializes in the software," he said, including the "front end, reporting, and analysis," and will "license the sequencing workflow to other laboratories."
The price for Clear View, which Amini declined to disclose, includes both a base annual subscription and then tiered pricing based on the sample volume of the customer. A number of undisclosed retailers and manufacturers are currently testing Clear View in beta mode, Amini said.
He envisions a number of different applications for the product. In the case of a bacterial outbreak, for instance, retailers could use it to trace the source of the contaminant back to a common supplier. Retailers could also use it to compare similar products from different manufacturers or could use it on an ongoing basis to track trends and monitor their supply chains. Manufacturers could use Clear View to test products before they are shipped to retailers or to differentiate their products from other manufacturers.
Amini said there will be a growing need for such food testing services as the US Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture roll out the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which will include more stringent testing regulations and will begin to move toward a proactive approach toward contamination prevention — identifying contaminated food before it reaches consumers and becomes a problem. Because Clear View enables an unbiased look at potential contaminants or allergens, customers can catch a problem before consumers become sick and products have to be recalled. "You don't need to know what you're looking for," he said
Ghorashi said that while the firm's initial focus is on the manufacturers and retailers, it thinks its technology could play a role in the consumer market. "Consumers are demanding more and more transparency in their food," he said. In addition, there have been significant advancements in sequencing technology that the idea of consumers being able to "scan a food with a sequencer linked to a smart device and read the DNA" is not far fetched. "The technology is definitely coming and we want to be at the forefront of that," Ghorashi said.