DNA analysis technology firm Oxford Nanopore is one of the UK’s most successful life science unicorns. Valued at £1.5bn, the company, which has built an electronic sensing platform for multiple applications, was spun out of Oxford University 14 years ago.
With customers in nearly 100 countries, Oxford Nanopore’s reach is truly global. “Scientists are using our technology to answer a lot of impactful biological questions,” explains chief executive Gordon Sanghera. “They can characterise cancer samples, or identify pathogenic bacteria in a lung infection. They can understand the source of an outbreak of a disease, and gain insights into the effect of climate change on biodiversity. All this information comes from DNA analysis, and the access we provide.”
The company makes both powerful devices that can be used in laboratories and pocket-size DNA sequencers for people to use in industrial environments like food safety testing, agriculture, and increasingly for clinical applications.
Right now, the focus is on disrupting the scientific research market, Sanghera reveals. “In the life sciences space, companies tend to build huge, expensive boxes that are hard to ship and maintain – we deliberately entered the market with a pocket size sequencer that we sent to hundreds of people in the first week of launch,” he says. “We won’t rest until this technology can be used by anyone, anywhere.”
Oxford Nanopore is investing heavily in building the infrastructure to make its technology open to a broad range of customers -even consumer DNA analysis could soon be a reality. “We need accompanying sample extraction and preparation technology, so that blood/water/food – whatever is being tested – can be tested end-to-end,” says Sanghera.
Bringing technology like this to the mainstream is complex. It will need to be easy and intuitive to use: “We think about making the technology better and better so that the customer experience is continually evolving,” says Sanghera. “But we also need to focus on all the component parts of a growth business – market access through the right commercialisation strategy and quick international distribution of our products.”
Nanopores are tiny holes within protein molecules. The firm’s technology is able to pass DNA strands through these holes, while measuring the currents they create. The resulting signal is coded into a DNA sequence. Oxford Nanopore has more than 1,000 patents relating to this process.
Now that the company is generating significant revenues - £32.5m last year – it is scaling its manufacturing capabilities. “We have just opened a new factory in Oxfordshire that deploys manufacturing automation processes that have taken us many years to design and build,” says Sanghera. “Balancing customer demand and supply of high quality product is key to successful growth.”
Sanghera says that his father instilled in him the work ethic required to build a business like Oxford Nanopore, and also gave him the motivation to try and change the world. “I am first generation British Asian,” he says. “My father left the Punjab aged 18 to build a new life for the family in the UK. He worked incredibly hard to give the family an education, and because of his sacrifice we valued it highly and I want to see that translate into an impact on society.”