Portfolio Company Spotlight

Inventing a New Genomics Market

Biota brings next generation sequencing to the oil and gas industry

October 2019  Illumina Ventures invests primarily in healthcare and biomedical innovations. However, we are always looking for unique markets to deploy next generation sequencing (NGS) and other emerging approaches. Biota offered one of the most creative ideas we’ve encountered – using NGS to make oil and gas production more efficient and sustainable.


Like people, oil reservoirs have unique microbiome signatures. These biological markers can help companies map how oil is moving throughout the subsurface – technology Biota pioneered.


“Biota intrigued us, not only because it’s a brand-new market, but because it’s brand new science,” said Wouter Meuleman, Principal at Illumina Ventures. “Nobody had sequenced the microorganisms living deep in the subsurface, let alone develop an application for them. It gave them a great first-mover advantage, but it was also challenging, because Biota had to introduce a completely new technology. They had to convince a mature industry that studying the subsurface microbiome could improve their economics, while also reducing environmental impact.”


Biota’s chief evangelist is CEO Ajay Kshatriya, who co-founded the company with legendary microbiome researcher Rob Knight. The idea was simple: Combine NGS with advanced informatics to identify the microbiome fingerprints in each oil deposit. This new data improves subsurface models, which can increase yields and reduce the environmental impact of oil production.

“The oil and gas industry is one of the largest producers of water and waste water in the world,” says Kshatriya. “Every barrel of oil produced generates three barrels of water that must be remediated. If Biota could reduce this water use, there’s a tremendous double bottom line benefit, both for the economics and the environmental impact of energy production.”

Convincing an Industry

Kshatriya knew connecting NGS to oil production might be a tough sell – at first. But he also felt the science made sense.

“DNA sequencing is a noninvasive way to track fluid movement,” says Kshatriya. “There’s high density information we can measure over time and identify patterns.”

He started with a listening tour to better understand the industry and its needs. Initially, oil executives weren’t sure what he was offering. Some naturally equated NGS with health: Are the microbes infecting my oil well? In addition, microbes have a negative connation in the industry – corrosion in metal piping is caused by some bacteria, which must be removed. But gradually, Ajay learned how to get the point across.

“The big a-ha was framing Biota as a new data source utilizing DNA Sequencing,” says Kshatriya. “Customers are producing oil on a daily basis, but they’re getting that production from various layers in the subsurface, and it's not obvious which layers the oil is coming from. If our customers had a better understanding of which layer was being accessed, they could produce more oil and less water. DNA could help them solve that problem.”

Understanding where oil originated can have a dramatic impact on multi-million dollar capital and production decisions. Kshatriya likens it to having two cans of soda and two straws. Putting both straws in one can would drain it too fast and leave the other completely untapped. By showing companies where to look, NGS and microbial informatics can help ensure each well is ideally situated.

From there, Biota worked with several energy companies to make NGS work for subsurface environmental samples. They had to create new methods to extract these samples – some miles below the surface. Even more importantly, they had to understand the microbes they were extracting, some of which had been evolving underground for eons.

“In many cases, we are finding microbes with no known reference genomes,” says Kshatriya. “In others, the microbes showed sequence homology to known species, like halophiles, which live in salty environments or extremophiles, which survive in extreme temperature and pH environments.” 

Biota developed the science and market, inventing a new application for NGS and showing the oil industry that DNA sequencing could improve production and reduce waste. Biota is now providing this service for more than 30 companies around the globe, including several Fortune 50 customers.

“Scientific insights emerge when we develop a new way of measuring the world,” says Kshatriya. “Biota commercialized a microbiome diagnostic while simultaneously creating a new market for customers. We are grateful for our partnership with Illumina Ventures to improve the economics and sustainability of the oil and gas industry.”

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