Bacteria lurk pretty much anywhere you look, in numbers and varieties worthy of a horror movie. The challenge for scientists who actually want to pry into these dark corners, packed with microbes, is identifying the individual organisms and figuring out which are commingling inside cells.
Phase Genomics, the first startup to spin out of the University of Washington’s Genome Sciences department, has developed the technology to help solve that riddle. The company recently landed $1 million in funding to ramp up its operations.
The founders are Ivan Liachko, a biologist, and Shawn Sullivan, a software expert who “built cool things at Microsoft for eight years,” according to Liachko.
“We knew each other prior to founding Phase, having spent nearly five years trying to kill each other playing Dungeons & Dragons,” Liachko said.
The company has three products and services already on the market and promises new products are coming soon. The technology can be used to sequence the DNA of any organism — their first complete genome was for a goat — and has been used on plants, birds, various mammals and loads of bacteria.
The use of the Phase Genomics’ tools on samples containing bacteria and viruses, the search for “microbiomes,” is helpful for scientists studying agriculture, disease, health diagnostics, basic research and industries that try to harness microorganisms to generate different chemicals.
“Practically the entire scientific community in this field is mining microbiome samples,” Liachko said. “We’ve developed a brand-new pick for these mining efforts.”
Because microorganisms like bacteria live all jumbled together and often can’t even survive on their own, scientists have had a tough time isolating many individual species of bacteria and decoding their genomes. When they try sequencing the DNA from a mix of microbes, a process that requires chopping all the genomes into pieces, they can’t tell which segments of code came from which organism.
“It’s like taking 1,000 jigsaw puzzles and mixing them up and you don’t know which piece comes from which puzzle,” Liachko said.
Inside cells, DNA is tangled up in “hairballs,” as Liachko describes it. Phase Genomics’ “pick” works by taking a sample and sort of freezing all of the hairballs in place. When the hairballs are then chopped up for sequencing, the scientists can still tell which strands were touching each other in the hairball phase. Using that information, it’s possible to string together which segments of DNA came from the same organism, building a complete genome.
The whole process takes about a week from sample to results.
Phase Genomics is hiring in order to keep scaling up their efforts, and the new funding will help. The money includes venture capital from Congruent Ventures and Washington Research Foundation, and “little bit of angel money,” Liachko said.
They’re planning to stay on the UW campus in CoMotion Labs’ Fluke Hall location, and currently occupy a lab with actual windows, glass-walled offices and “infinite coffee.”
“We have strongly benefited from the support of UW and the local community,” Liachko said, “which helped us bootstrap into a revenue generating company without outside investment.”
Now countless microscopic creatures can be revealed.
“Every time we process a sample, we get tons of new organisms,” Liachko said. “They’ve always been there, but no one has been able to sequence them.”
We caught up with Liachko for our Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We enable biologists to make new discoveries about microbes, plants and animals that were expensive or impossible before. We do this through a mix of proprietary laboratory tools and a powerful cloud-based data analysis engine.”
Inspiration hit us when: “The initial light bulb went off during a seminar at the UW. This sparked a number of collaborative projects with other scientists both at the UW and elsewhere. After a few of these proof-of-concept projects, we were so impressed by the power of this technology that we decided it would be a crime against science not to commercialize it. We are continuously engaging in interesting research and discovery efforts to try and maximize the number of scientists that we can help with our platform.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We have bootstrapped our company to its current size. We find that this method is great for learning how to run an efficient and hungry organization and to discover what customers really want. Not all startups have the option of doing this, but for us doing it ‘the hard way’ has reaped huge benefits.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: A unique wet-lab method combined with innovative software and love.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Hiring a team of incredible people.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Too early to tell, I’m sure we will find out eventually…
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Gates, due to his focus on global impact. Our mission is to use our technology to transform the way genome and microbiome research is done, enabling scientists everywhere to make discoveries that were previously impossible.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: General nerdery (we slay puzzle rooms).
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: People who love what they do and take pride in being great at what they do.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Talk to everyone and leverage other people’s experiences. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get advice, but make up your own mind in the end.”