David Koepsell, J.D./Ph.D.
In the Autumn of 2016, I was invited to give a talk at the University at Buffalo Bioinformatics Center of Excellence, entitled: “The Blockchain and Personal Genomics: tracking rights and responsibilities securely”, 9/20/16. The Prezi for that talk is here. I became interested in the possibilities of using blockchains for genetic data because of my long-time interest in genomics, ontology, and ethics, and my growing interest in blockchains from a cryptocurrency hobbyist perspective, which had prompted this piece in The Conversation in 2015. After my talk, three interactions changed the course of my life forever, and ushered in the age of genomic blockchains. The first was that immediately following the talk, an IBM consultant approached me and mentioned that what I presented would be a good basis for a real piece of software: an actual platform. At the time, I was an academic and had not gone much further than presenting the idea as a theoretical one. The second was that my long-time mentor was also present and suggested that I could create a company and build a product, which again, I had not yet considered. Finally, within a month I received a call.
In October 2016, I received a call from the CEO and co-founder of a startup in the UK, called Aksion, Ltd. They had formed with the idea of building a genomic blockchain and wanted to speak with me about my talk which they had found online. We Skyped a few times, and both of us had been researching the field to discover if anyone else was doing what we hoped to, having both found only DNAtix, an Israeli startup that, since its formation in 2014, appeared to have gone dark and not released anything yet. At that point, I was considering forming a company as had been suggested, but given the contact with Aksion, Ltd., which had already been formed and was seeking funding, I suggested we somehow work together. They ruminated for while but declined. I then hired a lawyer and began forming Encrypgen, forming officially in January 2017 as Encrypgen, LLC. I figured the race was on with Aksion, so got to work getting a team together with an aim toward having a prototype in time for the Bio-IT World show in Boston in May 2017. Aksion dissolved sometime later in 2017, never having been funded. But as we shall see, competition would soon come.
By May, Encrypgen showed its prototype at Bio-IT world in Boston. We had raised money through a friends & family round and had no intention at the time to do an ICO. In fact, we had never heard the term. But at the show, our partner Curlew Research, with whom we joined in presenting a workshop at the event, mentioned the idea of an ICO. Because our platform did indeed depend upon having a token economy, pre-selling the tokens seemed like a good idea, even if we did not need to do so in order to raise money to build the product. In June, we cobbled together a home-spun token sale and raised, on the cheap, nearly 300 BTC by the sale’s end on July 17. As well, in June, we visited Illumina, with whom we had been talking since before Bio-IT, and which was showing interest in our product.
Our meetings with Illumina were interesting and the net result was that they decided they did not want to get involved in blockchain at the time. Interestingly, shortly thereafter, following some restructuring at Illumina, some former Illumina executives (though none we had met with) announced they were starting LunaDNA, which was to be a genomic blockchain effort. LunaDNA would eventually get funding from Illumina Ventures. We had applied for and been rejected for Illumina’s Accelerator program, and were naturally a bit peeved at the emergence from Illumina’s alumni of our first significant competitor, but welcomed the validation of our business plan even as we came ever closer to leading the pack of a growing squadron of genomic blockchain startups.
By early 2018, Nebula Genomics entered the fray. Although some of their materials indicate they were formed in 2016, I could find no filings as evidence, and only begin to see news stories about them in 2018. Nebula has as its co-founder George Church, a well-known geneticist and founder of several startups including Veritas, a testing company.
Interestingly, Church’s one-time challenge for people to just get used to being re-identified by genomic data was part of the research that led myself and co-founder Dr. Vanessa Gonzalez to embark on our work in genomic data protection, and then to found EncrypGen.
LunaDNA and Nebula Genomics were not the only new genomic blockchain startups to come along and start to crowd the field we initially had apparently to ourselves. Zenome, genome.io, Shivom, the re-emergence of DNAtix, and maybe a dozen others all announced plans to build genomic blockchains in late 2017 and throughout 2018. Early on, all had also promised to have tokens for their ecosystems, though that would change for the two main competitors of Encrypgen: LunaDNA and Nebula Genomics. Only EncrypGen, Zenome, and Shivom have created tokens that are now in circulation. (DNA, ZNA, and OMX). LunaDNA and Nebula have both backed away from cryptographic tokenomics as I have written about previously.
More genomic blockchain efforts should be expected. Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. The genomic blockchain world is full of fathers (and mothers) and has no orphans. On November 6, 2018, EncrypGen launched the world’s first fully functioning genomic data marketplace mediated by a blockchain. Soon, others will catch up and offer storage, indexing, search, and transactions as does the Gene-Chain. Eventually, we hope, these blockchains will interact. In January 2018, in the hopes of ensuring ease of use by customers, EncrypGen called for its competitors to join in the Genomic Blockchain Consortium, to develop standards and interaction among genomic blockchains. Perhaps much of this can be done by the Blockchain in Healthcare Global effort, and customers can be protected and transitions and transactions among platforms eased. Perhaps too the various blockchain tokens will be able to interact, and EncrypGen intends to eventually allow the use of any competitor’s tokens on its platform in return for the converse courtesy on other genomic blockchain platforms, when they become functional.
EncrypGen was first out of the gate, and first to market, but then again, so was Mosaic the first internet browser, followed soon after by Netscape, then Internet Explorer. Today, there’s a good chance you use Chrome and have long forgotten, or never used Mosaic or Netscape. Time will tell what happens to the various competitors in the genetic blockchain startup world, but let’s hope that unlike most 1990s websites, customer data does not disappear, and that people are able to browse and use this valuable and growing new pool of data easily and fruitfully.
Dr. Koepsell is the CEO and co-founder of EncrypGen, Inc. The world’s first genomic blockchain to host paid transactions, and still, apparently, the only http://encrypgen.com