NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Sequencing service startup The Sequencing Center of Fort Collins, Colorado, seeks to carve a niche for itself by offering comprehensive packages that include sequencing, bioinformatics, and data management at competitive prices and has been surprised by the large demand it has encountered so far.
Richard Casey, the company's founder and CEO, had been managing bioinformatics services and computational resources at a next-gen sequencing core facility at Colorado State University for more than a decade but noticed that only a few commercial service providers existed in the area. "We decided to start the company about a year ago to provide that kind of service," he said.
After securing financing and suitable lab space near the university campus and a hospital, the company became operational a few months ago and formally opened its doors last month.
The Sequencing Center, which is self-funded by Casey, is starting out small, with a single sequencing instrument — an Illumina MiniSeq — and four staff members, in addition to several consultants. The plan is to grow organically and to add more sequencing platforms over time, including an Illumina NextSeq in the near future.
The firm uses Amazon Web Services for data storage, both long-term for archival purposes and short-term to enable data analysis.
Given the MiniSeq's relatively low throughput, the firm has been focusing on microbial sequencing services so far, including bacterial, viral, amplicon, and plasmid sequencing. "With the MiniSeq, being relatively inexpensive as it is, we knew we could offer a really great service for microbial sequencing right out of the gate," Casey said, and the company has received a number requests for such projects already.
In addition, customers have expressed interest in various types of gene panels, such as for infectious diseases or oncology, for which the MiniSeq is suitable, too. There also seems to be demand for metagenomic sequencing, for example from environmental samples or for human microbiome projects, and the company has developed a bioinformatics pipeline for analyzing metagenomic data. Such projects "run fairly well on the MiniSeq; the NextSeq would expand that a lot," Casey said.
However, so far the firm has not been able to fill requests for larger-scale projects, such as human whole-exome or whole-genome sequencing, which require a more high-throughput sequencer like the NextSeq.
One way The Sequencing Center wants to distinguish itself from others is by offering packages that include DNA extraction, library preparation, sequencing, bioinformatics analysis, and, in some cases, data management services.
Discussions with potential customers and Casey's experience from his core facility work had shown demand for such comprehensive services. "The complaint we heard all the time was that they got one part of it done but not the other part," he said, for example just sequencing, or just the bioinformatic analysis. With the all-in-one approach, "the client just submits the sample, and sometime later, they get a report. They don't have to worry about anything in the middle," he said.
Competitive pricing is another way the company wants to seek an edge, for example through automation of library preparation and semi-automated bioinformatics pipelines. "We're trying to use automation as much as we can to reduce the cost and to speed up," Casey said. In addition, the firm has been able to offer prompt quotes and fast turnaround times.
So far, project requests have come from a variety of places, including university research centers, commercial entities, and government labs. To drum up business, the company has been using broker services, such as Science Exchange, which has resulted in a number of leads.
However, social media have also played an important role in attracting new customers. "I think a lot of sites don't do that very much, or very well, or even at all," Casey said. "We do social media marketing in a very big way," which "has been terrific in lead generation," resulting in several quotes per day. "Believe it or not, we've had requests come through Reddit," he added.
Through online marketing, the firm has had requests from as far as China, Malaysia, and the UK. Until now, however, it has had to turn these down because it has not gathered the necessary licenses and permits yet to be able to receive international shipments, in particular of microbial samples. But the company recently hired a biosafety officer as a consultant and hopes to fulfill all requirements soon.
Casey said his experience working at a core facility for many years, in particular interacting with clients, prepared him well for offering similar services commercially. "We know what they need, we know what they want, what the pain points are," he said.
The demand that seems to exist for sequencing services has been somewhat unexpected, though. "We've had requests from places that we think already have sequencing centers available, but they're still coming to us," he said. "It's growing very quickly. We're really surprised at the response we get."