Kevin Gunderson was employee No. 7 of 6,000 at Illumina. He led the company’s advanced research group for almost 18 years, helping create its first $1 billion product line.
In 2016, he left that perch. While holding Illumina in high regard, startup culture called to him. So did an emerging field.
“It was time to do it again,” said Gunderson, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Encodia, which started with a handful of employees in 2016, quietly growing to 32 workers.
Encodia is part of a wave of San Diego genomics startups created and led by former Illumina bigwigs. Most of at least nine local upstarts with an Illumina pedigree have surfaced in the last two years, a sign of San Diego’s already renowned genomics market maturing.
Illumina — maker of sequencing machines used by everyone from Ancestry.com to clinics determining the best medicines for patients based on genetic makeup — is San Diego’s largest biotech with a $52 billion market cap. Sheer size is but one reason for spawning upstarts.
New frontiers opened up with the plummeting cost of decoding a human genome, a feat in which Illumina played a large role. But the company can only cover so much uncharted territory.
“It’s such a broadly applicable technology that it’s not so difficult for people to come up with ideas that are novel but maybe not so big that Illumina would have to jump on them right away,” said Shawn Baker, creator of SanDiegOmics.com, a genomics consulting company.
Encodia found such a niche: advanced proteomics, a relatively new way of analyzing proteins in a cell. Proteomics is seen as among the next big things in precision medicine — tailoring treatment to an individual based on a precise view of genes and proteins.
Encodia and other genomics startups buy Illumina systems, explaining why Illumina doesn’t seem to be sweating losing talent. Not to mention, observers said, the company has the cash to buy promising upstarts.
“To unlock the full potential of genomics, we need diversity in thinking, both within Illumina and outside,” Aimee Hoyt, Illumina’s senior vice president and chief people officer, said in a statement.
“We have seen employees leave and start new companies that will then use Illumina’s technology to support their respective businesses. We are grateful that our alumni continue to push the boundaries of what is possible through genomics, helping to solve the toughest challenges in the human condition and inspire hope for people around the world.”