Everyone Into The Gene Pool The man who cracked the human genetic code sees 6 billion customers.
(MONEY Magazine) – You won't find many beakers and Bunsen burners in J. Craig Venter's labs, where 50 scientists recently sequenced 3.12 billion letters of the human genetic code. Instead, Celera Genomics, with its Star Trek-like "command center," used supercomputers and robotic instruments to do the job. It took Venter's crew nine months and an estimated $200 million. He notes rather smugly that a competing effort led by the U.S. Government was supposed to cost more than $3 billion and take 15 years.
Venter's high-profile quest to crack the genetic code helped Celera's stock spiral to $276 in February. However, it's closer to $100 these days as investors wait to see if the company will be able to make money as a for-profit library of gene information. So far its customers include Amgen, Immunex, Pfizer, Harvard and the Australian government. Celera is also considering mining its own data to develop cancer vaccines. Ana- lysts expect revenues to more than triple this year, to about $42 million, and Venter predicts the database business will show a profit by 2002.
The 53-year-old former National Institutes of Health scientist founded Celera in 1998, and his speedy efforts to sequence the code forced government scientists to accelerate their project. His outspokenness ruffled political feathers too. A truce of sorts has been declared (with both sides announcing their discoveries at the same time), yet Venter still crows about the superiority and commercial viability of his data. He met recently with MONEY reporter Natasha Rafi.
Q. Now that you have the code, what's the next step?
A. The next 100 years is going to be spent analyzing the data that we've generated. Our biology is not simple--it's the most complex operating system that we've ever tried to understand--and the genetic code is not the end point but the beginning of a new phase in medicine. What Celera will do is concentrate on converting all of this information on genes into information on proteins. Genes are just the blueprint, the plans, for how proteins interact and physically form our bodies. We're setting up a facility here to sequence a million proteins a day. That's going to lead to new diagnostic markers, to new therapeutics and vaccines for things like cancer.
Q. Why pay for your information when the government has posted its data on the Net?
A. Because, No. 1, the Celera data is substantially more complete than the public effort. The public project won't be at the same stage for three years. And No. 2, we've built the largest civilian supercomputer to help analyze the data. The tools and software for interpreting the data are a key part of our database.
The sequence of letters that make up the genetic code is the most trivial part. It's like having an attic full of bins, and you have to search through those bins to find the information. Most universities can't afford a $100 million computer to do this analysis. And why would they want to afford it, if they can do it for a tiny, tiny fraction of that? It's like any central service anywhere--like Bloomberg for getting financial information.
Q. Do you foresee any collaboration with the public project?
A. I won't rule out anything, and I won't rule in anything. We've tried from the beginning to have a collaboration; we've settled on cooperation, which is a good step forward.
Q. President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair declared in March that genomic information should be free. Your response?
A. I think they were sort of pushed into those statements by bad advice. They thought they were just making mother, pie and applehood statements. The real issue for the public is whether Congress will get going and pass genetic discrimination bills, so that data does not get used as a weapon against all of us.
Q. When do you think personalized, genetics-based medicine will become a reality?
A. It's a reality today. You can be tested for the breast cancer gene and hereditary colon cancer. It's just a question of future scale. The technology is going to change every month going forward. Someday, during an interview like this, we could sequence your genetic code right here, and you could sign up for a personal subscription to the database, go on the Internet and understand your own genetic propensity for disease. That's going to have a huge impact on medicine. And Celera is going to be the one that drives it. We feel we have roughly 6 billion customers out there.
Q. How can investors cut through all the hype that surrounds biotech?
A. I think we've been extremely low on any hype. We've delivered on everything we ever said we were going to do--either on schedule or way ahead of schedule. And unlike most biotech companies, we have real revenues.
Q. You've been referred to in some unflattering terms--as a "monopolist," as "the Bill Gates of biotech."
A. I think Bill Gates has actually accomplished a lot; it's ironic that his name has become a negative term in some people's eyes. Celera is by no means a monopoly. We're just an information company. Those were fears implanted by people who were trying to justify their budgets to compete with us. The government should not be competing with private industry. It should be trying to help support it.
Q. Rumor has it that you're analyzing your own DNA.
A. I won't confirm whether I was a donor or not, but at least theoretically I need to mentally be willing to do that. It's kind of hard for me to advocate that you should have your genetic code analyzed if I'm not willing to do that myself.