AsianScientist (Jul. 19 2016) – In 2010, the biotech world sat up and took notice when a private Chinese company made a purchase on an unprecedented scale—128 state-of-the-art DNA sequencers at the price tag of US$690,000 apiece. The order, supported by a US$1.58 billion line of credit from the China Development Bank, gave a single institution more sequencing capacity than all the universities, research institutes and companies in the US combined.
The message was unmistakable: BGI has arrived and is to be taken seriously.
But confidence and thinking big has always been a part of the BGI DNA. When the company was first founded as a non-governmental independent research institute in 1999, it pledged to sequence 500,000 reads as part of the human genome project; quite a feat, considering that it did not own a single sequencer at the time. Much of this bold, risk-taking culture can be traced to the company’s former CEO, Wang Jun, who has been with BGI since the start.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Wang announced in July 2015 that he would be stepping down as CEO of BGI for a yet more ambitious venture, a new artificial intelligence startup called iCarbonX. Since then, the company has not only raised US$106 million in Series A funding but also attained ‘unicorn’ status in record time, clocking in at a valuation of US$1 billion just six months after launch.
“When I stepped down from BGI last year, it left a lot of people wondering why. What happened? What is the next move?” Wang tells Asian Scientist Magazine. “The simple answer is that I founded a new company to shift the focus from just sequencing to multi-omics and big data, using artificial intelligence to understand life.”
Artificial intelligence: The only way to understand life
Although it was somewhat unexpected by the biotech community, Wang’s move toward artificial intelligence is, on hindsight, unsurprising. After all, Wang did not major in biology at the undergraduate level but studied computer science, working specifically on machine learning and neural networks. That perspective has deeply shaped both his work at BGI and even the name of his new company, iCarbonX.
“Life is digital,” he shares. “It’s just that unlike computers which are silicon-based, life is a carbon-based program, encoded in basic modules called ‘genes.’ It’s important to understand that the set of genes which form a genome basically reflects a survival strategy that responds to a changing environment and other selection pressures.”
For Wang, applying artificial intelligence to biological problems is not only important, but absolutely essential.
“Machine learning is probably the only way to understand life itself,” he stresses.
Citing recent achievements such as IBM Watson’s successful lung cancer predictions and AlphaGo’s triumph over human Go master Lee Sedol as a sign that artificial intelligence is approaching maturity, Wang believes that the time is right to launch iCarbonX.
“As undergrads we were taught that there are three components necessary for artificial machine learning technology: algorithms, high performance computing and big data,” he explains.
“These days, we are getting there in terms of the algorithms and high performance computing, but we don’t have big data for healthcare yet. That’s where iCarbonX comes in, to collect it.”