Fifteen years ago, Gordon Sanghera set out to disrupt the scientific research market by building a new science-based company that could revolutionize DNA sequencing by providing a fast, cheap way of providing real-time surveillance.
Now the chief executive of Oxford Nanopore Technologies finds himself at the center of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and is also considering his options, including an initial public offering, for the future of the company.
Oxford Nanopore has been thrown into the spotlight as countries across the world race to track the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, such as those identified in the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa. These are driving an alarming spike in cases and have the potential to reduce or even eliminate the efficacy of the vaccines.
Scientists are increasingly turning to Oxford Nanopore’s hand-held DNA sequencing device called MinION. The size of a cellphone, and weighing less than four ounces, the device runs off a laptop USB plug and costs just $1,000, making it simpler, cheaper, and faster to sequence without the need for big clinical laboratories.
“Our goal has been to democratize access to DNA sequencing and provide universal access to real-time genomic surveillance,” Sanghera said in an interview with Barron’s. “There is no more urgent need to do this as there is now.”
This isn’t unlike another important U.K export: the Covid-19 vaccine developed by U.K.-Swedish drug company AstraZeneca with the University of Oxford, which is low cost and can be safely stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures, making it easier to distribute. By comparison, the shot developed by U.S. drug company Pfizer with its German partner BioNTech requires storage at minus 70C.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic last January, Oxford Nanopore’s sequencing technology has been used to support scientists in more than 50 countries, including China, and more recently Brazil, as they sequence the virus to track its transmission and evolution.
“Information is everything in the pandemic,” Sanghera said, explaining that scientists have traditionally had to collect hundreds of samples and wait for weeks for the results. “You can buy the device on a Monday, have it shipped by Tuesday, genome sequence on Wednesday and sample the data on Thursday,” he said.
The company’s evolution has been reflected in its investor base, as it has dialed down its reliance on London-based investors and now counts Singapore’s sovereign-wealth fund GIC and China Construction Bank International among its investors.
In October, Abu Dhabi-listed International Holdings Company invested £39 million in Oxford Nanopore as part of an £84.4 million equity raise, taking the firm’s total funding to £613 million ($840.2 million) since the founding.
That gives it a valuation of £1.5 billion ($2 billion)—making it one of the U.K.’s rare “unicorns”—an unlisted technology company valued at more than $1 billion. It would be a prime candidate for an IPO, which is something Sanghera is now considering alongside other options with his advisors.
Meanwhile, the company plans to use the cash from its latest funding round to ramp up its commercial and manufacturing operations so it can distribute its products internationally, as well as boosting its rapid Covid-19 testing capability.
The company teamed up with the U.K. government last year to provide its LamPORE Covid test—developed from scratch in six months—which can determine whether a user has coronavirus in under an hour. The test is currently being rolled out in mobile testing units across the U.K.
But Sanghera’s ambitions go beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, with hopes that its devices could be used in the future to identify common infections and prevent the overuse of antibiotics and other prescription drugs.
Surgeons in Tel Aviv recently used the device when removing a tumor from the abdominal cavity of a patient, to make sure they had extracted all the cancer cells. In Canada, it is helping to more precisely match organ donors to patients, which Sanghera said can be done in the space of three to five hours.
Oxford Nanopore has also has developed a larger, very high throughput device, the PromethION, which now has the potential to sequence up to 150 human genomes on a desktop device. Pitted against large instruments from other providers like Illumina, the data format that Nanopore offers provides richer data, which Sanghera describes as “like watching color television instead of black and white.”
“If nothing else happens with this company, as long as we save some lives, I’ll be happy,” Sanghera said.
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