Adina Mangubat showed up at BIO, the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, held in Chicago in April, in a strong position. Featured in Forbes’s “30 Under 30” last December (she is 26), the chief executive officer of Spiral Genetics had just landed $3.0 million in financing, bringing total financing through venture capital and angel investment to $3.7 million. Interviewed on stage at lunch by BIO President James C. Greenwood, Mangubat achieved a higher profile than most of the biotech start-up CEOs seeking attention in Chicago. Her company even has products!
Never mind that Seattle-based Spiral Genetics is not a biopharmaceutical company. As a developer and marketer of bioinformatics software, the firm is at the cutting edge of drug discovery. The attention it attracted at the biotech convention is indicative of the shift in focus in drug research toward information technology in the wake of the decoded human genome and the tsunami of data that followed. And the company’s young founder may well reflect a shift in demographics under way in drug research.
When asked if her background is in chemistry, biology, or statistics, Mangubat smiles and answers, “None of the above. Psychology.” A self-proclaimed science geek as a kid, she says she started studying physics in college but was attracted to a discipline with more of a human element. She combined psychology with hard science as a student at the University of Washington, Bothell, by focusing on biopsychology and psychopharmacology.
In her senior year, she also took a course in entrepreneurship where she met Becky Drees, a molecular biologist at UW Bothell and the Institute for Systems Biology, who had an idea for a genetic data analysis company. That sounded better than going to grad school to Mangubat. The two developed a corporate plan that won a university-sponsored business entrepreneurship contest in 2009.
The plan didn’t translate immediately into a real company, however. “We were initially interested in exploring the consumer side of things,” Mangubat says. “It was not a bad idea at all.” But the personal genome test kit market was already dominated by a firm called 23andMe.
The less obvious opportunity—developing DNA data analysis software for researchers—proved, on investigation, to have a lot of potential and an open playing field. The duo, with Drees as chief science officer, signed on software designer Jeremy Bruestle as chief technology officer and launched Spiral Genetics in 2010.
Whereas companies like 23andMe focus on known genetic data, Spiral Genetics has set its bar higher, hoping to help researchers discover new genetic markers correlated with particular diseases. Mangubat expects demand for the company’s software will grow with the shift in drug research to personalized medicine. “There is a new wave of researchers looking at genetic differences using all this information around what is happening with the genome,” she says. “But it has to be done in a big-capacity way. There is only so much data you can insert into a problem before it gets overwhelming.”
Spiral Genetics currently has two products: Spiral Cloud, software that uses Amazon’s cloud computing infrastructure for genetic data analysis, and Spiral Cluster, software to support cluster computing, or distributed data processing with in-house computers, at big companies. An adaptation to both products allowing them to detect larger gene insertions and deletions is in the wings, Mangubat says.
Like R&D managers at large drug companies, Mangubat sees an increased value being placed on mathematical skills in drug discovery. More important, she sees a need for software tools to vet genomics data, not only in drug research but also in plant science and biofuels research. “The big data side of things is a complicated, specialized field in computer science,” she says. “To have people on the chemistry or biology side taking this on themselves is a tall order.”
Mangubat, however, doesn’t expect an explosion of statistical analysis to box out chemistry and biology. “I don’t think you are going to have statisticians coming up with the answers in drug discovery,” she says. “It is still the old needles in the haystacks,” but data analytics will allow researchers to consolidate the many haystacks that must be explored for any one needle.
Moreover, Mangubat sees the technology for analyzing genomics data following the course of all technologies, passing from the hands of the expert technician to those of the general user focused more on the job than on the tools—the chemist, say, or the biologist. “We are headed toward a world where a kid with a laptop can analyze his or her genome,” Mangubat says. We are also headed toward a world, she adds, where much new drug development stems from genome sequencing.
Mangubat says the firm has already fielded overtures from potential buyers. She anticipates more interest from other software firms and even from drug companies and research equipment firms—Mangubat cites Merck & Co.’s 2009 acquisition of genomics software pioneer Rosetta Inpharmatics and PerkinElmer’s 2011 buy of Geospiza, another Seattle-based software firm. “Acquisition is always a strong option, especially in a field growing this quickly,” she says. But for now Spiral Genetics is concentrating on expanding its software offerings.
“There is room to move,” Mangubat says. “Right now we are focused on DNA, but there is also RNA and metagenomics. There are a lot of things that interact with DNA.”