How IBM’s Entrepreneur of the Year Uses DNA, Watson to Cure Drug-Prescribing Problems




Not all patients are the same.

That idea is at the fast-beating heart of a company that was named IBM’s Global Entrepreneur of the Year at last week’s IBM SmartCamp finals. The New Jersey-based for-profit research group Coriell Life Sciences beat out some 1,200 other startups to claim the honor.

President and CEO Scott Megill spoke with Fast Company about how his company’s DNA mapping and tracking works, and how IDM’s Watson is making the process smarter–by analyzing 1,500 scientific papers a month.

“Right now there’s a gap between genetic science and physicians,” Megill says. “There’s lots of great work that’s happening in genetics, but the physicians aren’t geneticists, and so it’s not really incredibly apparent what genetics mean for an individual patient.”

Coriell hopes to solve that problem. Here’s how Megill says it works:

“A physician can order a diagnostic through the same diagnostic ordering system they’re using today. The same way they would order a blood test, they can order a genetic test. What that requires is that a patients submit a small sampling of DNA, which is really just a rubbing from the inside of their cheeks with a glorified Q-tip and that gets put into a tube.”

That tube then gets FedExed off to a lab and Coriell takes over–analyzing, tracking, and sharing the data that’s generated.

“That Q-tip has enough DNA in it that we can extract roughly 3 billion points of information,” Megill explains. “We extract what the relevant genes would be that relate to drug response.”

At which point the Coriell team converts that knowledge into a “responder status” and uses that to create a summary report for a physician that’s easy to read. It tells them if they should consider an alternate treatment, or if a normal response is expected, or if a patient has “an increased risk for adverse drug reaction.” Subsequent pages of the report go into more detail.

“Most doctors have no idea what CIP2C19 is,” says Megill, about a gene that is significantly responsible for drug metabolism. “If you tell them it has an effect on the metabolism of Plavix, they will look at that and say, ‘That’s wonderful, but I have no idea what that means.’ The FDA has gone at least far enough to tell them to pay attention to the genetics for patients before prescribing particular drugs, but there’s a major education gap. We want them to get a dashboard view of the responder status across all of the various drugs we test for.”

Determining possible drug interactions for different types of people, genetic makeups, and classes of drugs is a tricky process that involves a huge amount of research. In a new experiment, Coriell is now using Watson, IBM’s smart computer, to read and “understand” medical literature–freeing up scientists to focus on bigger tasks.

image001-18A doctor places an order and a patient submits a sample via a “Q-tip swab.” Coriell’s “orchestration engine” does genetic sequencing, translates the information into a “responder status” that tells doctors how a person is likely to react to a particular drug.

Coriell already has a product on the market that examines how different types of pills work together. Through a managed care organization called PACE, they have an exclusive deal with 5,000 physicians in 25 U.S. states, as well as a partnership with pharmacy called CareKinesis.

The payoff for the company could be massive. According to a report issued last month by In-Demand Research, the value of the world genomics market was about $11.11 billion in 2013. Advancements in technology and government funding are anticipated to drive a 12% compounded annual growth rate through 2018. And as Coriell positions itself as a physician-decision support tool, they don’t compete with direct-to-consumer genomics companies like the embattled 23andMe. Nor are nor are they likely to run into the same FDA crackdowns.

“In the world of clinical genomics, we consider ourselves where the rubber meets the road,” says Megill.

At the moment, that appears to be a great place to be.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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