Oxford Nanopore has designed and manufactures the world’s first hand-held, real-time DNA sequencer. It could transform diagnosis speeds, potentially saving millions of lives
By Nicky Godding
The same year that London secured the Olympics, 2005, Oxford Nanopore was founded. This company could also be a global winner, this time in the field of technology and life sciences.
Oxford Nanopore is a UK technology company valued in excess of £1 billion. From its Oxford Science Park base it has designed the world’s only hand-held electronic sequencer which can access DNA information in real time. The company has a rich development pipeline, including a mobile-phone compatible DNA sequencing device.
The 2012 Olympics were a triumph for Great Britain, largely because they were preceded by seven years of planning, investment and strong management the like of which this country seldom sees - in sport or business. We were rewarded with an incredible haul of medals, and the UK’s sporting achievements bestrode the globe like a colossus.
Like the London Olympics, this country must be prepared to back winners, says Oxford Nanopore CEO, Dr Gordon Sanghera. Academic excellence in the UK is better than anywhere else in the world, he says. Per capita per dollar we punch way above our weight.
His company’s technology could also be a winner. This really is disruptive technology, and here’s why.
Out of the 100,000 biological research labs in the world, around 12,500 have a traditional ‘mainframe-like’ DNA sequencer which can take days to produce a dataset that needs interrogation.
Oxford Nanopore has designed instruments to deliver direct DNA analysis in real time, which existing equipment does not. But what’s really exciting is Oxford Nanopore’s development of unique electronic hand-held devices.
Imagine being able to diagnose contagious illnesses immediately. Vicious pandemics such as Ebola, SARS or Avian Flu could be contained quicker if medics didn’t have to wait days for lab diagnosis.
Crops could be scanned for blight early and resistant varieties planted, potentially staving off famines in vulnerable countries.
Real-time surveillance could stop food recalls from supermarket shelves, real-time water quality surveillance could immediately identify bugs such as cryptosporidium, to stop the spread.
A mobile DNA sequencer could negate a trip to the local surgery. In future, and with sufficient technology and health system development, a simple swab analysis using Oxford Nanopore’s hand-held sequencer could help confirm that a sick child simply has a regular vomiting bug sweeping the community, rather than something more serious. We will soon be able to access much more information about ourselves to aid healthier lifestyles.
A career in bio technology
Gordon Sanghera’s career has been spent coupling biology with technology. He joined Oxford University spin-out company, Medisense, in Witney in the 1980s. Professor Allen Hill had developed a bio-electronic device for the electronic measurement of blood glucose, and Medisense was commercialising the product.
Gordon rose to Head of Research. The company floated on the Nasdaq in 1994 and was bought by Abbott Laboratories for around $900 million in 1996. He spent five years with Abbott in the USA, first in sales and marketing, then in mergers and acquisitions, returning to Witney in 2000, where he helped to build the factory’s continuous reel to reel manufacturing process which today produces around one billion glucose sensors per annum.
By early 2003, and with Abbott Laboratories’ golden handcuffs of a final salary pension looming, Gordon began hankering for one more big adventure, to apply everything he’d learned and build a UK company with global potential.
He tapped up Oxford University contacts (back then there were no technology transfer companies). He also contacted a company called IP to IPO (Now IP group), which had invested £20 million into Oxford chemistry R&D, and met Spike Willcocks. Spike was a PhD graduate who translated academic science into something investors would understand.
Over lunch at the Chiang Mai Kitchen on Oxford High Street, Gordon and Spike trawled through a list of projects. One was to become Oxford Nanopore. “With my bioelectronics background, I could see similarities between that and the way we manufactured the Medisense platform,” said Gordon.
Spike (now Chief Business Development Officer at Oxford Nanopore), helped Gordon write an eight-slide presentation for the bank on why this sensing platform was different and what the prototype would look like. It took just 45 minutes for the Board to grant half a million pounds’ seed funding.
From the outset, Gordon was determined not to make the same mistakes he felt his previous company had made. “Medisense never really achieved more than 10% market penetration. We had to invest in IP to safeguard the nanopore field.”
In a bold move, Gordon raised enough capital to sign collaborations with academic groups across the world focused on similar technologies. This covered broad nanopore sensing technology including future ‘solid-state’ nanopores. “We signed up Harvard and Boston Universities, Texas A&M, Santa Cruz California and Massachusetts.” The company had turned future competitors into collaborators.
“We wanted to achieve the commercial availability of nanopore products to do amazing things, and the best way was to future-proof the company by funding academics for the development of the platform itself, and for its next generation.”
Gordon wanted to establish high-volume manufacturing from the start. “We knew we had a fantastic product, which could be deployed in a number of ways.” After much debate, the company settled on DNA sequencing, which offered the widest range of commercial opportunities.
A decade of development
It took nearly ten years to deliver the first product, but Oxford Nanopore has been fortunate in its investors. “We were honest about how long it would take, explaining that it’s challenging and difficult, but with high risk comes high reward.” So far, over £350 million has been raised in a stepped approach and the company is now at a tipping point.
“Like the Olympics, our ambition has always been about moving on to the next level,” says Gordon.
“I sometimes think of the company as a beast in a big pit, which we are feeding raw innovation. The more we feed it, the louder it roars. When we get the biggest beast fully out there it’s going to run riot – for the good. And that’s going to be next year.”
R&D must remain close to manufacturing
Oxford Nanopore manufactures at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory at Didcot, close to its Oxford Science Park R&D hub. And this proximity is critical, according to Gordon.
“I was lucky to be asked for my opinion to help shape some of the debate on the UK’s industrial strategy. How can Oxford Nanopore go from 350 employees to 3,500 people, and how can Government help make that happen? The knee jerk reaction is to manufacture where labour is cheap, but we’re proving that’s not the case.”
“We have a team of 40 at Didcot and we will be scaling up. R&D must remain close to manufacturing because we are coupling high-end electronics to the most exquisite single molecule biology. Innovation happens close to where the knowledge is and solving any problems in the manufacturing process helps to catalyse more innovation.”
Jeremy Bryar is Oxford Nanopore’s Director of Continuous Improvement at Rutherford Appleton. He said: “Working for the only company in existence which makes what we do, gives us a massive sense of pride, and the vision the company has regarding the DNA world is quite remarkable. We have a formidable team with the same goals: to build a top-quality product that will become a world leader in its field.
It might seem that the sale of Medisense – a company born in the UK, for $900 million in 1996 was a good deal. But Abbott Laboratories now has a market capitalisation of $76 billion. Gordon isn’t alone in thinking this is less a success, than a UK failure to nurture and retain global companies. His view is held by others, including UK biotech entrepreneur Sir Christopher Evans. The issue, they say, is often a lack of UK investment.
“If you have the right money and backing, you can build a global technology company – and that’s what we’re doing,” says Gordon. “That’s not to say that strategic relationships might not be important, or that an IPO is out of the question, but we are not in a dash for cash.
“We have the London capital markets, which are exceptional, and British academia which is phenomenal. Bring them together and you get successful spin out companies,” he said.
Sir Christopher Evans added: “Many UK companies establish a base in the USA because it’s easier to raise capital there, but Britain has the best scientists in the world. Our investors must be bolder to keep our companies here.”