**This is part of our series highlighting startups who share our mission of trying to make people’s lives just a little easier**
Blockchain and tokens have become stalwart parts of everyday vocabulary over the past year, but when Nebula Genomics announced their latest project, it was the very first time we’d heard of blockchain being used in genome sequencing.
If the thought of the two coming together in a happy marriage makes your head spin, hold tight. Things are about to get interesting.
It cost $1 billion to sequence the first human genome back in 2001. Today, individuals can go through the same process for $1,000 with prices set to drop even further (in fact, it’s thought it will cost around $100 in the next year or so).
But the increasing accessibility of genome sequencing for everyday people brings with it a range of limitations and concerns – not least what happens with the data collected.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.
What is Nebula Genomics?
Nebula Genomics is a start-up co-founded by George Church, a mega-name in the genetic sequencing world and a Harvard grad. The aim of the company is to give people all around the world an even cheaper way to sequence their genomes and help medical science and human studies.
Nebula uses ultra-modern blockchain technology to create a platform that allows users to get rewarded for sharing their genetic information with researchers – all while maintaining their privacy.
In one white paper, Church explained the logic behind Nebula, highlighting that it will place genomes onto a secure blockchain and give users the power to do what they want with it while bringing in money (even if it is in the form of tokens).
More power to the people, right?
Church plans to tap into the security of blockchain technology and bring it together with genome sequencing to help make deeper tracks in drug development and medical research.
At the moment, there are a few other genome sequencing brands doing the rounds. We’re talking companies like 23andMe and Helix. The problem with these is that the users don’t control their data.
Nebula also goes one step further and provides a full-scale genetic analysis while cutting out the middlemen, which are often black holes for data. By running the project on a blockchain, Church and his team plan to ensure consumers have complete control over their genetic data and added security.
More about that in a mo.
How Nebula Genomics Works
Church has made the process of selling genetic data on the blockchain relatively simple (well, as simple as it can be).
To kick things off, people send a saliva sample to Nebula which is then analyzed by a team. Once that data has been analyzed and stored, other research companies and entities can pay-to-play. That is, they can pay a fee to access the information via a secure computation platform created by Nebula.
Data can then be rented out over and over again, and can even be shared with more than one buyer at a time.
So where’s the catch?
Well, the system has its own currency which kind of isolates it from the “real world” in a way. Church and his team call them Nebula tokens.
In order to access the data, companies need to buy tokens. On the other side, individuals wanting to sell their genetic data are required to pay out a small fee using the tokens. As a result, they cash in when their genetic code is purchased.
Why Nebula Genomics is Different
“The Nebula model eliminates personal genomics companies as middlemen between data owners and data buyers,” says Church and colleagues in the white paper. “Instead, data owners can acquire their personal genomic data from Nebula sequencing facilities or other sources, join the Nebula blockchain-based, peer-to-peer network and directly connect with data buyers.”
To put it simply, Nebula is taking the power of owning genetic data out of the hands of middlemen and putting it into the hands of individuals.
It does this by bringing together different technologies in the fintech and health care industries. It’s not just a case of supplying genetic information like with many other genetic sequencing companies. On top of that, individuals get a deeper insight into their genetic makeup and get paid for it at the same time.
But as with any data-exchanging project, there are concerns around data protection and privacy.
Even though the price has fallen considerably since the first genome sequence back in 2001, individuals still aren’t seeing the value. It’s kind of like the internet was back in the 80s – there, but not many people were using it.
Nebula hopes to act like the first browser that became the tipping point for the internet taking off. It could easily be the technological tipping point the genome sequencing world needs.
But What Does It Mean for User Data?
The biggest concern is always data.
What happens with the genetic data when individuals send it to Nebula and who can access it?
The key to creating a successful project like this is giving researchers what they need to carry out their work while still maintaining an element of privacy.
Which is where Nebula’s computation platform comes in.
Because researchers are paying to access and use the platform, it makes sense that Nebula is putting in a whole lot of effort to ensure security is water tight.
Church and his team are already collaborating with various security experts to make doubly sure that user data is protected and anonymous – which is where the blockchain element really comes into its own.
Individuals that share and store their genetic data via Nebula will remain completely anonymous, with their data tracked only through blockchain ledgers.
While the startup is still in its early days, it’s already steaming ahead of most genome sequencing companies out there by tapping into the power of multiple new technologies in different industries.
Data is a huge concern for everyday people – especially data as sensitive as their genetic history – and it’s refreshing to see a company taking these concerns so seriously.
Whether Nebula will be the tipping point for the genome sequencing world like the first browser was for the internet is still up in the air.
But one thing’s for sure: we’ll be watching this one closely.