For the record, and to try and avoid accusations of bias, I am a fan of both Illumina and Oxford Nanopore. I have won grants to purchase, and I have encouraged our facility to purchase, millions of pounds worth of Illumina equipment; my lab has spent well over £100,000 on Illumina sequencing. So there’s that. Yet I am also a massive fan boy of Oxford Nanopore’s technology – anyone who reads my blog or my Twitter feed will realise that I see nanopore technology as the future and often get incredibly excited by the revolutionary nature of the MinION mobile sequencer.
So I am incredibly disappointed in this – Illumina Sues Oxford Nanopore for Patent Infringement. It’s like having two of your friends fighting.
There are fractious relationships in genomics of course – that between Illumina and BGI perhaps most famous – and I have written before about the relationship between Illumina and ONT, and how they entered into arbitration in 2011/12.
Illumina suing ONT is the latest act in the “war” between the two companies and comes after Illimina licensed technology from the Gundlach lab in 2013. Key for me is what Illumina’s intentions were when they did this:
- Illumina wanted to develop nanopore technology, and they now have something close to market. This situation would put Illumina in the best light. In this case suing ONT is probably something they have to do to try and create space in the market for their technology. Not great for ONT, but it seems this is how business is done.
- Illumina wanted to develop nanopore technology, they’ve tried and failed. This makes Illumina look worse – if they don’t have a competing technology, it’s a bit spiteful to try and spike a competitor anyway, though certainly not uncommon. And in this situation at least they tried to develop tech.
- Illumina never wanted to develop nanopore technology, and they bought the Gundlach patents just to kill ONT. Again not entirely uncommon, but this is essentially patent trolling and really doesn’t make Illumina look good at all. This would be a business driven decision to the detriment of science and the detriment of humanity. Not good.
I am guessing the only way we will ever know which of these is true is if Illumina eventually release nanopore technology – we’d then know/suspect (1) is true.
The timing of this really stinks too – given ONT are set to float on the stock market, it’s hard not to see this as a deliberate attempt to scupper that.
My view is that ONT have a pretty strong position – my understanding is that they have patents, stretching back many years, that cover most or all of their instruments. Some of this may come down to the pore – Gundlach’s patents cover MspA; and Hagan Bayley’s work, on which ONT was originally based, involved alpha-hemolysin, a different pore. Though we don’t know if ONT switched pores. In addition to all of that, the pores in ONTs technologies have been engineered, mutated and developed a huge amount – so when does a pore stop being the original molecule and become something else? Do the patents cover this?
These are very interesting times, but this is not a welcome development.