Next-Gen Sequencing through the eyes of its Chief Executives

Next-Gen Sequencing, for all its promise, has not had the smooth adoption many had hoped for. Uncertainty about government funding in the US and Europe has exacerbated what seems from the outside to be a widespread hesitancy to take the plunge. And for those who have, the talent pool for qualified statisticians still lags behind—making it difficult to sift through the oceans of data being produced.

In 2011, alarm bells continued to ring. In October, Illumina laid off 200 employees due to poor sales. Life Technologies wont even disclose how many jobs it cut, and Pacific Biosciences trimmed off a whopping 28-percent of its workforce.

But despite the concerns, smart money is still optimistic about the next-gen market. Recent performance aside, the major instrumentation manufacturers remain highly-rated stocks. The Motley Fool and other publications have this time as a great entry point for those who believe in the long-term prospects of the market.

And such people are not hard to find. You can barely search the internet without running into a story about the $1,000 genome. The appeal of personalized medicine has gripped everyone from the stargazing futurist to the hardline empiricist.

Somewhere in between the reality of layoffs and the promise of the $1,000 genome lies the market’s CEOs, the most practical of dreamers, who have as much to say about the future of next generation sequencing as anyone. Here is next-gen’s story so far, in quotes from its chief executives.

“Everything in the world is going to get sequenced.” – Greg Lucier, CEO of Life Technologies

Governments may be tightening up in the face of uncertainty, but as long as there is money for science, there will be money for genomics. And even as the word “austerity” reaches a new peak in popularity, the US government accelerates funding for genomic medicine.

“It turns out the biology is a lot more complicated than people thought.” – Jay Flatley, CEO of Illumina

Maybe not to those most familiar with the biology, but in the first couple of years of use, the learning curve has been steep. There remains a much greater demand for bioinformatics specialists than there are qualified candidates. But looking forward, Flatley is optimistic about the specialization of experiments relative to budgets, which will expand the money-making opportunities of next-gen suppliers. Customers who want to do more targeted sequencing at lower throughputs are no longer priced out.

“What we’re trying to do is put a sequencer right next to the thermal cycler on each life scientist’s benchtop.” Christopher McLeod, CEO of 454 Life Sciences

Roche believes the market for next-gen sequencers could include tens of thousands of labs worldwide, which would mean a lot of expensive instruments, and more importantly for the bottom line, a lot of consumables.

Most often it’s not what they say that’s most telling, but what they do. People make large scale financial deals when they think they’re good investments, like Agilent’s Bill Sullivan, who signed off on acquiring Halo Genomics and BioSystem Development in December.

But what about the scientists?

What about the people whose work supplies the raison d’etre for the industry? What are their needs and concerns? Their restrictions, their sources of funding, and their must-haves? What are their prognostications, for 2012 and beyond?

Between August and September 2011, we polled 583 scientists who use or plan to use next-generation sequencing in their work. What they told us about their plans to adopt the technology was optimistically at odds with the impression given off by today’s slumping stocks and layoffs. Although both buyers and sellers view the next 18 months with some trepidation as public sector funding of science remains uncertain, NGS may be an exception due to its broad applicability. Indeed, our research shows that a significant percent of  life scientists currently using genomics technologies intend to adopt NGS over the next couple of years.

As far as workflow needs, it unsurprisingly starts with improved data manipulation software. Other must-haves include a lower cost per base, and longer read lengths (see the chart below). For more key findings on this report—which is listed at 25% off through the end of January—take a look at our complimentary executive summary, or check out our youtube video.

So there are still hurdles to jump. And as any Illumina shareholder will tell you, the early going has been rocky. But the promise is still there—as bright as it was in the days when personalized medicine was still purely science fiction. Luckily for us, suppliers, scientists, and Greg Lucier all alike—there are still plenty of things in the world to sequence.