After becoming the only company in the world to map the genome for bread, pasta and wild emmer wheat — which a global consortium of scientists had worked on without success for 10 years – the Ness Ziona, Israel-based NRGene is confident it will have hundreds more plant and animal genomes sequenced by the end of the year and is looking to expand its focus from agriculture to humans.
“A huge public effort is underway to sequence the genomes of individual humans,” said Dr. Gil Ronen, the CEO of NRGene, in an interview from the company’s offices. “But there is no tool available to make sense of all of this available data out there. This is our next big opportunity.”
The company has held very initial talks with diagnostic and health firms to license its genome sequencing software and algorithms for the analysis of human DNA, in an effort to help diagnose genetic disorders at an early stage and strive to personalize medications, Ronen said.
But to understand what this is all about, it is necessary to take a step back. To the genetics of seeds.
It all started with seeds
Seed developers worldwide spend billions of dollars and years to develop new, more nutritious and resilient varieties of seeds. These in turn enable farmers to grow bigger quantities of more nutritious and more resilient crops – something crucial for a world that needs to produce at least 50 percent more food to feed the expected 9 billion people it will host by 2050.
Genomes contain all the genetic makeup of organisms, be they humans, plants, animals or bacteria. By studying the genomes of the plants to determine which seeds will better suit climatic conditions and which will have high resiliency, developers can save a lot of time and money and make for more efficient agriculture.
So here is where NRGene comes in. Its founders, Gil Ronen and Guy Kol, set out in 2010 to develop software to speed up the breeding of elite varieties. They enlisted code crackers from the Israeli Army’s elite 8200 unit and got them to write algorithms that would do the job. These ex-army decoders worked intensively for about four years together with a team of software engineers and bioinformaticians. In the end, a set of computational tools emerged that allowed NRGene to map even the most complex genomes quickly and accurately.
Then, in collaboration with Dr. Assaf Distelfeld of Tel Aviv University, NRGene mapped the genome of the wild emmer wheat, the ancestor of commercial wheat known for its ability to withstand harsh environments and diseases. The genome for the wild emmer wheat was completed in one month, in August 2015. Following a successful assessment, the world’s leading wheat scientists decided to use NRGene to crack the code of bread wheat as well, in December that year.
Bread wheat “was the holy grail for researchers; its genome has 16 billion letters, five times more than the human one,” Ronen said. “But believe it or not, cracking the wheat genome was not the most difficult task these army graduates had tackled.”
Together with its software and its own database of DNA, NRGene also enables companies and researchers to make sense of all the DNA data available today.
“Genomics is all about big data,” Ronen said. “More and more sequencing machines are spewing more and more DNA data. The bottleneck is in making sense of it all. That is where our software comes in.”
Ronen said NRGene is the only company that offers customers a “quicker, more accurate and cheaper way” to sequence and mine genomes, combined with cloud-based software that enables them to compare the genetic data and the actual performance of millions of plants in the field. “Using our tools, thousands of researchers all over the world have already sped up their research towards developing more productive varieties,” he said.
There have been successes along the way for NRGene since it first launched its product at the end of 2014. If at the end of 2014 there was just one genome sequenced for maize at a cost of $25 million, today there are 41 genomes for maize — the original one and another 40, all of the latter sequenced by NRGene. After the sequencing of the wild emmer and bread wheat, the company announced in July that it had unveiled, in only a few months, the genetic secrets of durum wheat –working together with Italian, Canadian, German, and US scientists and researchers from Tel Aviv University– to create better and more nutritious pasta.
Applying army-intelligence ability to biology
“What NRGene is doing is a game changer,” Daniel Chamovitz, dean at The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, said by phone. “They have taken technology only open to the largest labs and made it available to everyone. Any genome is now fair game for anyone in the world. They took the startup mentality of [army unit] 8200 and applied it to biology. Their tech will push plant breeding years forward and will have a major impact on our ability to feed our children and our grandchildren.”
In total, NRGene has delivered more than 80 genomes, and today works with seed manufacturers and research institutions globally, licensing its software and algorithms and working on joint research projects. It has more than doubled its number of employees in a year, to 40, and revenues this year have tripled, Ronen said.
“If all goes well, we plan to triple revenues in 2017 as well,” Ronen added. “We have no firm plans yet, but if things continue this way, an initial public offering could be on the cards in 2018. That is one option we are looking at.”
In addition to eyeing the human genome market, NRGene is looking to expand its scope into the Chinese agricultural market, which is keen to increase the quality and quantity of its local produce.
“Already today over 30 percent of our income derives from the Chinese market,” Ronen said. “They are also eager to work with us in the medical market.”
Ronen can’t hide his enthusiasm or glee at the impact of his company’s success. “We ourselves don’t believe what is happening,” he said. “It has happened all of a sudden and in a very short period of time. It is going to be very big. Something disruptive has happened.”