Blockchain Genomics Series: Interview with Zenome Founder Alex Gorbachev
In entry three of the SanDiegOmics “Blockchain Genomics” series I interview Alex Gorbachev, the founder of Zenome. Alex explains Zenome’s goal, details of how their genome database will work, and what sets it apart from others in this field.
Shawn (SanDiegOmics): Please explain what Zenome is doing (what problem is it solving and how is it solving it)?
Alex Gorbachev (Zenome): Zenome is a decentralized database owned by the community in which the ZNA’s internal cryptocurrency stimulates to contribute its genomic data and fill out questionnaires (with clinical and other sufficient information).
At present, there are the following prerequisites in the field of personal genomics:
- Today, more than 10 million people have undergone DNA testing (60 million by 2025)
- Pharmaceutical companies need genetic data to develop new drugs
- FMCG [Fast-moving consumer goods] companies use genomics to create personalized products
- At the moment, services providing companies and corporations are the only option for genomic databases
- Genomics will become the primary data generator on the Internet over the next ten years
It’s evident that there’s a need to create a decentralized storage of genomic data, in which it is possible to exchange genomic and phenotypic information between participants. Users have a financial motivation to fill out information about themselves, and companies that buy genomic data have all the necessary instruments to purchase data with broad access worldwide.
Our platform uses the blockchain system and the protocol of decentralized hash tables (DHT) to create a distributed database in which the community will upload and share their personal information and receive cryptocurrency as a reward. [It should be noted that] Zenome LTD will not have access to the personal information and data of the network users but will only deal with building the IT infrastructure that will stimulate the development of the market of genomic information.
Shawn: What types of information will you be accepting from your participants? (genomic info, health records, fitness tracker info, etc.)
Alex: According to our development plan, the first stage is the construction of the Zenome decentralized network, and to test our network, we will mainly take genomic information and some phenotypic/clinical data. This specialization is because genomic data has unique characteristics regarding storage and processing, as well as the preservation of privacy. At later stages of development, we plan to expand the range of received data, including medical records, tracker info, and other personal information.
Shawn: What types of genomic data are you accepting? (e.g., 23andMe, whole genome, exome)
Alex: We can accept genomic files of any type and format. Basically, it will be GVCF (VCF) standard 4.0 and higher; 23ME.txt (BED). As for the target size, we will take full genomes, and exomes, different gene-panels, and even single SNPs (for several diseases and therapeutic strategies this is sufficient).
Shawn: If your potential users don’t already have their DNA sequenced, will you be providing that as a service?
Alex: Yes, we will provide a DNA-sequencing service. Customers will be able to use both the services of our partners (genomic service providers and laboratories) or sequencing in our laboratory in Moscow (ordering directly at Zenome is available only in Russia and CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] at the moment). All services can be paid in two ways: fiat money and ZNA tokens, which gives you additional freedom. In some cases, we can also donate the sequencing cost or help with finding a donator among our partners or potential requestors of your genetic data.
Shawn: Will you be gathering data directly from individuals, or will you be working with partners (hospitals, disease foundations, etc.?
Alex: We plan to work in both directions. It is clear that the confidence to the partners (clinics, genetic companies, and scientific centers) will be higher (from the data volume and credibility). For private individuals, we will use an additional verification procedure.
Shawn: How exactly will you be using blockchain technology?
Alex: At the moment blockchain is necessary for storing hash-keys (checksums) of the personal data (but not for storing genomic data itself). The blockchain will also be used for financial transactions for creating and executing smart contracts. At the first stage, we will use the Ethereum blockchain. Next, we will launch our own blockchain.
Shawn: How will participants be rewarded for contributing their data?
Alex: Users of the Zenome decentralized network will receive a reward in the internal cryptocurrency — ZNA tokens. There will be several options to get a reward. The first is to simply upload and obtain verification of the genomic data, fill out the questionnaire and verify the information to get a fixed payment. Another way is to continually participate in surveys of data buyers and pass on necessary information to them. This way, the customer receives a reward for each transaction (manually or automatically). You can also provide your hard disk space or computing power by becoming a full-node and getting a reward for it. ZNA tokens will be openly traded on the crypto-exchanges; that is, it’s already able to be exchanged to bitcoin and ethereum.
Shawn: How exactly will prices be set on your platform, by those submit data or those buying the data?
Alex: The question of pricing is quite complex for any market system. When we talk about a free market, prices are set according to some “market laws”: the higher demand — the higher prices. However, we understand that “price manipulation” can take place. For example, a big corporation with a large number of resources can try to decrease the price of interesting genomic/phenotypic data. On the other hand, users might act in collusions and set a higher price for some rare categories.
Prices will be set according to the principle of pricing on exchanges, where the price is determined by the ratio of demand and supply. Final price will be a result of consensus between network users. We will work on technical realization of the platform to exclude possibilities of any manipulations in the Zenome network.
Shawn: What, if anything, would prevent users from submitting their data to multiple “genome database” companies? Is this a problem?
Alex: Theoretically, it’s possible to send data by one user to multiple “genomic database/networks”. In general, we don’t think it is a problem. For example, many users are registered in Google and Facebook at the same time. Both of these platforms collect and sell personal information about same users: search queries, interests, contacts, preferred video content etc. Thus, if there is a difference in the type of information collected, then data about same people can be sold to advertisers in anonymized form. For this reason, the range of data buyers differs and there is no problem in crossing audiences.
On the other hand, in our network for each unique DNA sequence (even separate fragments), a “hash-sum” will be assigned and it will be a part of a system for identification/detection double (or multiple) loading of the same genomic/phenotypic data. And by comparing hash-sums of DNA in different databases, buyers will be able to estimate how much genomic data will be crossed between different database. That is, how the technical ability to prevent “multiple data uploading” can be realized.
In my opinion, different “genomic networks” will take different specialized niches: medical, food behavior, sports, clothing preferences and so on (it will be same with modern social networks specialization). And for this reason, there will be no significant problem with the fact that users will load their data into various “genomic networks”.
Shawn: Who do you expect to be your biggest customers (i.e., the ones buying access to the data)? Academic researchers, pharma companies, disease foundations?
Alex: We expect that the largest customers will be the pharmaceutical companies. They will mainly buy rare genomes, which are associated with diseases or clinical trials. As the base grows, FMCG companies that are interested in personalizing their products can become big customers.
Shawn: This is a really exciting space, so naturally, it has attracted many competitors. How will Zenome stand out from the rest? What do you see being your key advantage?
The Zenome Team
Alex: Our key advantage is our team. We have the best developers from universities who regularly take first place in the international programming world championships. We have our vision, strong developers, and our office is in Moscow, which means that our IT development is 4–5 times cheaper than in the Silicon Valley.
We understand that we cannot compete with big names and large corporations as a brand. But at the same time, we have a loyal community and a sufficient number of tools and access to the best developers. The only way to success for us in this business is to be the best and quickest.
Also, our other difference from competitors is that we are building a decentralized network in which the community itself will create new services and make decisions. Users will own their personal data and earn, giving access to third parties to this data. We will only build the infrastructure. We believe that such an approach, “a la Wikipedia,” will allow us to achieve the maximum speed of our network development.