print edition of Providence Business News
The unique technology of Providence-based Nabsys Inc., a life sciences company focused on technology for analyzing DNA, has garnered industry attention nationally. The company recently closed a $20 million financing round.
Dr. Barrett Bready, president, CEO and a Rhode Island-native, discusses his company’s recent success, its unique technology and the future of the state’s biotech industry.
BREADY: We are addressing a very important need in the market. The type of work we’re doing is fundamental to the understanding of the genetic basis of complex disease and will impact not just medicine but a variety of sectors.
I think that the technology itself is very cool, interesting and able to attract very good people to Providence to work on it. And having those good people has attracted yet more good people. I think our success stems from the large, abundant need.
PBN: Can you explain a bit about how your company’s technology works?
BREADY: We make semi-conductor based devices for looking at DNA. These are things that look like computer chips and they’re made in the same places that chips are made for consumer electronics applications. But with our chips, DNA molecules flow through them, and they’re read electronically. So it’s a new way of looking at DNA. We call it “positional sequencing,” because it’s not just information about what the sequence is but it gets information about where that sequence goes in the whole genome.
The genome is all of the DNA in each of a person’s cells. … And it’s information that is not well-obtained through current sequencing technologies.
PBN: How does the industry standard-sequencing technologies work compared to Nabsys’ system?
BREADY: What existing technology gives you now, even after all the algorithmic work is done, is analogous to the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, but it’s not able to put those pieces together. ... You can think of Nabsys as giving you the picture on the box, it tells you where all the puzzle pieces go. … The technology is also what’s called single molecule. So it’s able to look at individual DNA molecules rather than just collections of molecules, it’s able to look at many individual DNA molecules at very high speeds. What this allows you to do is … count how many different kinds of molecules there are.
PBN: And why is that important?
BREADY: This is really important because the most interesting samples from a clinical perspective are inherently mixtures. When a Secret Service agent walks into an auditorium, they’re not interested in whether the average person is trying to kill the president. They want to know if there is anyone in the room trying to kill the president. Similarly, what the oncologist wants to know is not only whether the average cell in his patient’s tumor will respond to his choice of therapy, but rather are there any cells that won’t.
PBN: You mentioned oncologists and cancer research, are there other industries that are going to use this technology?
BREADY: It has applications for most people who work in DNA, whether on the research side or in more clinical applications. Our first applications are on the research side and they’re for people doing a variety of different analysis of DNA, but the key is that they need information about the structure of the genome: where the sequences go, not just what the sequences are. … This has applications in most diseases, not just oncology. It also has application for looking at microbial genomes. Ninety percent of the cells in a person’s body are actually not human. So 90 percent of the cells in your body are bacterial and more and more people are focusing on the importance of the makeup of that bacteria to human health. … Separately, there are a lot of applications for this in agriculture and biotechnology in terms of figuring out what the genomes of crops look like.
PBN: What are your plans for the future of the company?
BREADY: Short term we’re looking at commercializing the first applications towards the end of this year. Longer term we’re going to be rolling out the other applications that we talked about.
PBN: Do you think the biotechnology landscape in Rhode Island is changing?
BREADY: There’s a lot of opportunity. … America’s life sciences clusters … tend to be near strong research institutions, near teaching hospitals. They have proximity to life sciences venture capital, proximity to a Ph.D.-educated workforce. … But they also tend to have policies in place that encourage companies to locate or to grow in their locations and those are things that we don’t have. … With the appropriate policies making Providence in particular a preferred place to move a company, we could see a huge amount of economic development result. I’m looking out my office right now at the Interstate 195 land and I think that’s just a huge opportunity with the right policy initiatives to really create a robust life sciences cluster here.