While most blockchain-based startups and companies transitioning into digital currency are met with heavy skepticism, Harvard genetics pioneer George Church is turning heads with Nebula Genomics.

That the organization is based on cryptocurrency is not the most important factor– it’s that Church means to monetize and privatize DNA with it. The blockchain is set up to let people share their genome with researchers but maintain ownership over the data– and get paid with cryptocurrency.

Nebula is directly targeting 23andMe with this approach. Church’s company addresses “data ownership and privacy concerns, among other challenges” not met by 23andMe, according to CNBC.

New Business Model

While 23andMe clearly states that they don’t share consumers’ DNA information before getting explicit consent, the consumer is still being cut out. CNBC explained:

“In effect, individuals are paying 23andMe to test their DNA and more often than not giving 23andMe the right to then monetize that DNA in research efforts, sometimes in partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.”

Church intends to do away with middlemen like 23andMe and give consumers direct control over monetizing their DNA information.

This move is incredibly significant due to the adoption of personal genome sequencing for “better diagnosis, disease prevention, and personalized therapies,” Nebula’s white paper states. If researchers have access to genomic data, they can identify the causes of diseases and create new drugs.

“These opportunities are creating a genomic data market worth billions of dollars,” the paper stated.

Why Cryptocurrency?

Nebula’s “peer-to-peer” network uses blockchain to create a channel directly between data buyers and data owners. There are several advantages for data owners in this approach:

  • Data owners will make 100% of the profit from selling their information
  • Data owners privately store genomic data and control access to it
  • Data owners remain anonymous while buyers will be required to fully reveal their identities

To participate, consumers can get their personal genomic data then join the blockchain-based network:

“Nebula tokens will be the currency, and if the network grows as outlined, individuals will buy personal genome sequencing at Nebula sequencing facilities and pay with Nebula tokens. Data byers will use Nebula tokens to purchase access to genomic and phenotypic data, and Nebula Genomics will sell Nebula tokens to data buyers for fiat money.”

Nebula noted that it’s backed by Veritas Genetics and First Star Ventures.

Genomics Revolution

The revolution has made great strides as cost has been significantly reduced.

“The first human genome was sequenced in 2001 at a cost of $3 billion,” Nebula’s white paper read. “Today, human genome sequencing costs less than $1,000, and in a few years the price will drop below $100.”

This development is what allowed startups to follow 23andMe to capitalize on a growing trend and market individual DNA testing kits for $100 or less; however, Nebula’s white paper only had criticism for the service they offer, which uses DNA microarray-based genotyping:

“It is an outdated and significantly less powerful alternative to DNA sequencing. Instead of sequencing continuous stretches of DNA, genotyping identifies single letters spaced at approximately regular intervals across the genome.”

This method only identifies the letters at around 600,000 positions out of the 6.4 billion letters that make up the whole human genome.

“Thus it generates small amounts of data that are of limited value to individual data owners and researchers,” the white paper reported.

Nebula’s model, on the other hand, “satisfies the needs of data buyers in regard to data availability, data acquisition logistics and resources needed for genomic big data,” according to its white paper. Its higher efficiency also reduces costs.

Some might say Nebula’s approach is out of this world to work through cryptocurrency to monetize DNA data. For both supporters and opposition, it will be interesting to see how this business model shakes up personal genomics.