Case study: Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian FRS

University Research Fellow (1993-1998)
Herchel Smith Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at University of Cambridge and Senior Group Leader at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute

When Sir Shankar Balasubramanian FRS and his colleague Professor David Klenerman FRS at the University of Cambridge launched their spin-off company Solexa in 1998, they had to convince their investors that there would be a market for their products. It turned out that their fast, accurate and affordable DNA sequencing tools were ‘game-changing’ for private companies, research and society at large.

Solexa was acquired by US company Illumina Inc in 2007 for US$600 million. And Illumina’s latest valuation, in June 2018, puts the company’s total market share value at nearly US$40 billion.

When the pair set out on their venture, the idea of sequencing an entire genome quickly and cheaply was unimaginable. However, with the Human Genome Project to map out human DNA in full swing in the late 1990s, the pair realised their fundamental science research into DNA could have a valuable application.

At Solexa they developed a commercial DNA sequencer. And once they were with Illumina, they developed a ‘parallel sequencing’ method to analyse fragments of DNA simultaneously, thus massively slashing the costs and time needed for sequencing.

Today, Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Professor Klenerman’s next generation DNA sequencing technology is used the world over, and has been transformative for biology and medicine.

Sir Shankar Balasubramanian was knighted in 2017 for ‘services to science and medicine’, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. He still runs a research group which studies the fundamental science of DNA and RNA at the University of Cambridge.