Twenty years ago, sequencing the human genome was a multi-billion dollar international project. These days, you can have your dog’s genome sequenced for a few dollars by the end of the month. This speaks to the speed with which genetics has entered our lives, but despite the huge advances in technology, the process in the lab can still be a little fuzzy.
Before you can start tracking down a person’s genetic code, you need to start with a sample. And this sample must be prepared properly. This is a relatively complex process that is often sidelined in favor of brighter applications for genome sequencing (read: mammoth rebirth). But this is where Volta Labs wants to re-emphasize.
Volta Labs, founded in 2018, is an MIT Media Lab-based start-up dedicated to creating a programmable approach to DNA sample preparation. The team is building a desktop-sized device that can automate the processes used to prepare genetic samples.
“Twenty years ago, the whole world couldn’t sequence the human genome, and today I, not being a biologist, can sequence the human genome in a day or two on the bench. But if you look at the stages of sample preparation, it still lags behind by a huge margin. They are almost neglected,” CEO and co-founder Udayan Umapati told gaming-updates.
The origin story of the Volta device dates back to 2015 when Umapati was working on his thesis at MIT. “What struck me was that the existing technologies for stirring, mixing and heating liquids are outdated,” he said. “I realized that if we want to do biology on a large scale, biology automation has to be built from the ground up.”
The DNA sample preparation process starts with a biological sample such as blood, saliva, or even plant tissue. From there, a series of enzymatic and chemical reactions are carried out that remove the DNA molecules. They then need to be manipulated so that the sequencer can “read” them. These reactions are carried out by fluid-handling robots or, in some cases, by hand.
Volta automates this process with Umapati “Digital Fluidics” – a form of electrowetting. It uses a series of electrodes placed on a grid, each of which can be charged or discharged, creating a kind of labyrinth in which liquid droplets can be precisely arranged.
Umapati believes that with the right programming, his platform will allow him to manipulate liquids in even more sophisticated ways, such as using magnetic fields to remove certain molecules from samples for further analysis.
Despite these features, the device must be small: Umapati strives to keep it the size of a laptop.
Umapati is not the first to see the potential of “digital fluid dynamics” for biological applications. In fact, Illumina has been interested in this kind of technology for years.
In 2013, Illumina acquired Advanced Liquid Logic, a company founded in 2004 that has already used digital microfluidics to prepare work for next-generation DNA sequencing. In 2015, Illumina attempted to launch its own version of a DNA library sample prep product called NeoPrep, which converted a 4–5 day process into a device capable of completing the task in 30 minutes. However, as the authors of the 2020 review paper on the electric scale industry note, the production of the equipment was “discontinued for unknown reasons” in 2017.
It’s hard to say whether the end of NeoPrep in 2017 will have a major impact on Volta’s own commercialization process. But it looks like Illumina hasn’t considered this idea yet.
On Thursday, Volta announced a $20 million Series A round to be led by Maverick Ventures (Maverick led the previous seed round) with participation from Khosla Ventures, Cassadin Capital and E14 Funds. Illumina co-founder John Stuel Panagel and other genetics celebrities such as Ann Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, and Paul McEwan, founder of Kappa Biosystems. McEwan has led the specialized sequencing sample preparation programs at Roche Sequencing Solutions.
A natural question arises: does Volta’s device already exist? This is true, said Umapati, and it is already in the hands of four partners who are testing it in the field. He declined to name the partners, but briefly described them.
One, a cancer and neurological disorder company, used Volta technology to develop a DNA extraction process. One of them is a research institute in the field of RNA applications. The third is “the center of the genome,” he says. The fourth company is a biotech company with an interest in synthetic biology.
The company intends to launch a “limited trial” at the AgBT Genomics conference in June. Umapati is also expected to present data from pilot projects conducted with the Genome Center at this launch. He expects a commercial product to be ready by 2023.
Volta may have room to grow in the rapidly growing genomics industry. Human genome sequencing by the Human Genome Project cost $3 billion. Today, the same process can be repeated for about $600. A 2020 analysis of the genetics industry by McKinsey suggested that the cost of genome sequencing could fall below $100 within a decade.
Against this background, the obstacles to sample preparation seem obvious. The big question here is why haven’t the genome sequencing giants come up with a solution yet?
Part of the answer is that they have already been tried, and in some places, like Roche to do this Unlike an integrated system for creating utopias, there are tools that solve each small piece of the puzzle individually. But the answer that Umapati likes is that the existing sequencing technology is already sophisticated enough to make it a full-time job.
“The technology we create today is almost as complex as sample preparation. So for many sequencing technology companies, getting their core technology has already become a major challenge.”
In the future, Volta will have to prove that relatively complex chemistry can be manipulated in such a compact device. To really prove that he can fit into this niche, he would have to publish much more data than he does now. Confidential testing with four clients and unpublished data is not enough.
But if it really works, Volta could join in the rise of an industry that is already booming. In this round of Serie A, Umapati aims to map out the production plan and start building commercialization capacity.
“I think the bulk of the capital will probably go to product strategy and commercialization or team building, and we will get closer to commercialization next year,” he said.