Modern Medicine

Harvard genetics pioneer wants to monetize DNA with digital currency, and defeat 23andMe

Key Points
  • Harvard genetics pioneer George Church has founded Nebula Genomics to use the blockchain and digital currency as a way to monetize DNA.
  • Nebula takes direct aim at 23andMe and, saying their technological approaches are outdated and do not offer a financial incentive for more individuals to sequence their genome.
  • It also argues that the current genomics business model does not address data ownership and privacy concerns, among other challenges.

It's probably wise to be skeptical of anyone who says they have a new idea for a blockchain-based company, or worse still, a company changing its business model to focus on the crypto world. That ice tea company that shifted its model to the blockchain, or Kodak saying its road back to riches was managing photo rights using a blockchain system. Raise eyebrow, or move directly onto outright shake of head.

However, when a world renown Harvard geneticist announces he's launching a blockchain-based start-up, it merits some attention. And it's not the crypto-angle itself that might make you do a double-take, but the assets that will be managed, and exchanged, using digital currency: your DNA.

Harvard University genetics guru George Church — one of the scientists at the forefront of the CRISPR genetic engineering revolution — announced on Wednesday a start-up, Nebula Genomics, that will use the blockchain to not only allow individuals to share their personal genome for research purposes, but retain ownership and monetize their DNA through trading of a custom digital currency.

Harvard geneticist George Church poses for a portrait inside his lab at Harvard Medical School.
Jessica Rinaldi | Reuters

The genomics revolution has been exponentially advanced by drastic reductions in cost. As Nebula noted in a white paper explaining its business model, the first human genome was sequenced in 2001 at a cost of $3 billion. Today, human genome sequencing costs less than $1,000, and in a few years the price will drop below $100.

In fact, some big Silicon Valley start-ups, led by 23andMe, have capitalized on this rapid advance and already offer personal DNA testing kits for around $100 (sometimes with discounts even less).

Nebula took direct aim at 23andMe in its white paper, and one reason why it can offer genetic testing for less.

"Today, 23andMe ( and Ancestry ( are the two leading personal genomics companies. Both use DNA microarray-based genotyping for their genetic tests. It is an outdated and significantly less powerful alternative to DNA sequencing. Instead of sequencing continuous stretches of DNA, genotyping identifies single letters spaced at approximately regular intervals across the genome. While human whole genome sequencing determines ~ 6.4 billion letters, microarray-based genotyping used by 23andMe and Ancestry identifies letters at only ~ 600.000 positions. Thus it generates small amounts of data that are of limited value to individual data owners and researchers."

23andMe and did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Paying 23andMe to make money off your DNA

Users of 23andMe receive a testing kit before agreeing to share their DNA for research purposes. When registering the kit online, 23andMe provides a separate consent form and explains to users that it won't share personal DNA information without "explicit consent."

A majority of users do consent to share their DNA information for research purposes, as high as 85 percent.

In effect, individuals are paying 23andMe to test their DNA and more often than not giving 23andMe the right to then monetize that DNA in research efforts, sometimes in partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.

23andMe has partnerships with major drug companies like Pfizer. Like the company it was spawned from — Alphabet's Google, which is an investor — it plans to develop a major source of revenue by helping to develop blockbuster drugs. But the underlying DNA for the research is freely given away by individuals, like Google monetizing your search activity. The co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki, is the former wife of Google founder Sergey Brin.

"Personal genome sequencing will soon be widely adopted as it enables better diagnosis, disease prevention, and personalized therapies. Furthermore, if genomic data is shared with researchers, the causes of many diseases will be identified and new drugs developed. These opportunities are creating a genomic data market worth billions of dollars," Nebula wrote in its paper.

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Nebula claims its peer-to-peer network, based on the blockchain, will enable data buyers to acquire genomic data directly from data owners without middlemen. This will enable data owners to receive sequencing subsidies from data buyers and profit from sharing their data.The model will also deal with privacy concerns by allowing data owners to privately store their genomic data and control access to it. Data owners will remain anonymous, while data buyers will be required to be fully transparent about their identity.

"People pay to sequence or genotype their genomes and receive analysis results. Personal genomics companies keep the genomic data and sell it to pharma and biotech companies that use the data for research and development," Nebula wrote, a model that address "none of the challenges" that are keeping genome sequencing from being more broadly embraced by the public.

Lundbeck and 23andMe team up for depression study
Lundbeck and 23andMe team up for depression study

The Nebula model eliminates personal genomics companies like 23andMe as middlemen between data owners and data buyers. Data owners can acquire their personal genomic data from Nebula sequencing facilities or other sources, join the Nebula blockchain-based, peer-to-peer network and directly connect with data buyers.

Nebula tokens will be the currency, and if the network grows as outlined, individuals will buy personal genome sequencing at Nebula sequencing facilities and pay with Nebula tokens. Data buyers will use Nebula tokens to purchase access to genomic and phenotypic data, and Nebula Genomics will sell Nebula tokens to data buyers for fiat money.

"This model reduces effective sequencing costs and enhances protection of personal genomic data. It also satisfies the needs of data buyers in regards to data availability, data acquisition logistics and resources needed for genomic big data."

Nebula noted the significant investments already made in this race.

  • In 2012, Amgen acquired the genomics company deCODE for $415 million, which is focused on sequencing the genome of Icelanders.
  • In 2015, 23andMe received $60 million from Genentech for access to its genetic databank.
  • In 2016, AstraZeneca announced the launch of a project to sequence 2 million human genomes.
  • Just this year, Regeneron announced the creation of a $50 million consortium to sequence the exomes of 500,000 samples from the UK Biobank33.

Nebula has Veritas Genetics co-founders among its advisors; Veritas also is a partner on genome sequencing services, while financial backing includes First Star Ventures, which has made previous investments in health care technology and genomics companies.