Monday, January 04, 2016

Nabsys Reboots

It's the beginning of the year, so new beginnings are a natural subject (though to be honest, spring works for that too).  The holidays brought word of an effort to reboot a company that seemed to have expired: Nabsys.
I wrote an obituary for Nabsys back in September when it shut operations, sparking an angry comment from one of the founders.  Now comes news that Barrett Bready, the penultimate CEO of the original Nabsys, has purchased the assets for $500K plus assumption of $100K of debt, and plans to relaunch it as a new corporation, Nabsys 2.0.

I remain skeptical that Nabsys' DNA mapping technology, which measures distances between sequence markers, can find fertile ground, but I also recognize my fallibility in prediction. I've chatted with Bready a lot at the two AGBT meetings I attended, and he is a very personable and clever fellow. 

Nabsys' first challenge is that the acceptance of long-range mapping approaches hasn't really been settled.  BioNano Genomics is the main player in this space for large genomes and had a nice demonstration this summer (in collaboration with Pacific Biosciences and academic collaborators) of how this approach can produce essentially finished reference diploid genomes using just long read sequencing and long-range mapping,   That's scientifically amazing, but whether the community will buy in big is far from assured.  Nabsys strongly needs to demonstrate similar results; my personal recommendation is to generate some good results and get pre-prints up to Biorxiv, as that is much faster than a conventional publishing route and would yield useful feedback.  

But the other threat is that long read sequencing technologies will simply march into the same territory. In particular, sparse numbers of Oxford Nanopore reads have been reported approaching 200Kb, and Twitter reveals that the "fast mode" is now being field-tested.  In the context of ultra-long reads, fast mode would mean a larger yield of such reads per sample even if they are a minority of the fragments. Improved library generation techniques are likely to continue to push the standard for Oxford preps, much as has been the case with Pacific Biosciences.

Perhaps the most difficult part of rebooting Nabsys is the fact that it shut down four months ago, which almost certainly means the majority of the prior workforce has moved on to new positions.  Indeed, several key figures had left before the final close, as is common in such situations.  Technology is important, but losing all that institutional knowledge can be a serious handicap.

Reboots are hardly unheard of.  I wrote last fall of an effort to reboot Helicos' technology, with some of the same .  Codon Devices could be seen as a reboot of EngeneOS, which was another synthetic biology company with many of the same founders.  In turn, Gen9 could be viewed as a reboot of Codon, diving back into gene synthesis with the same founders as Codon (and EngeneOS) but under a new brand (Codon's was pretty beat up).  That points to one of the attractions of reboots: much like bankruptcy, restarting the company enables shedding old obligations and agreements.    Codon IP assets featured prominently in other companies, particularly Eleven Biosciences (protein engineering) and Celexion continued some of the yeast display and metabolic engineering work.

I do wish Bready and Nabsys 2.0 the best of luck.  The technology is still quite amazing, and may well find a profitable niche.  I'm sure Bready will recruit a talented team, and I do always admire those who follow the mantra to do things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard".


Unknown said...
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Keith Robison said...

Nicola: Short answer is (a) I have never received monetary compensation from Oxford Nanopore and (b) I really think this is a very exciting technology. Thanks to you, the long answer is now online.