BGI Part 1 – Business

I never quite know where to place the BGI (originally Beijing Genomics Institute). Are they a sequencing service? Are the a instrument vendor? Are they a business at all? Or are they a research institute? At times they seem like all these things, and none of them. My clearest personal memory is from one of the Cold Spring Harbor conferences. The moderator announced that before our next talk a representative from the BGI would like to make a brief statement. The BGI representative stood up and read a pre-prepared statement announcing that the BGI would sequence 1000 plant an animal genomes… it was an ambitious project but clearly one that the BGI were capable of accomplishing (using Illumina machines at the time). But the delivery seemed weird. Usually these large projects are coordinated through an international consortium of researchers. The BGI just stood up and stated that they were going to do all this themselves… it kind of sounded like a declaration of war, and indicated to me that the BGI is something other than a traditional research institution.

At present they a massive fleet of Illumina machines, their own commercial instruments employing two different sequencing technologies, a sequencing as a service business, a clinical NIPT test, 1000s of researchers, and offices in 4 countries. So what exactly is the BGI anyway? in 1998

I figured I’d start by trying to go back to the beginning. The BGI was founded in 1997, and appears to have been developed out of China’s desire to take part in the human genome project. wasn’t owned by the BGI in 1998. was most likely, but the earliest capture in the waybackmachine is from 2008, it’s quite sparse and talks of them having Illumina Genome Analyzers, ABI Solids and 454FLXs (it’s notable that only the Illumina range of instruments still exists). But it’s otherwise not very instructive.

The BGI history page, tells us a little more stating that “On July 14, 1999, BGI was founded with the mission of 1% of the human genome for the International Human Genome Project.”. In China research funding comes from the Ministry of Science and Technology . I would imagine funding came from the “973” program. Which was China’s basic research program until 2017, when it was supposed to be replaced by something else. 

Early versions of the Chinese wikipedia page on the BGI state that after the completion of the human genome project the BGI relocated to Hangzhou in exchange for local government funding, and then in 2007 they announced that they were to relocate to Shenzhen to establish China’s first private non-profit research institution, in 2008 BGI Shenzhen was approved by the Shenzhen Municipal Government to become a public institution. So from what I can tell they started off firmly as a non-profit research institution and remained so until at least 2008. What’s less clear to me is what kind of entity this was (non-profit? state owned? private company?).

2010 seems to have been the turning point for the BGI. They received a 1.58B USD line of credit from the China development bank [1], and funds from Shenzhen Capital Group [2]. It also looks like Taikang Life Insurance [2] and Sequoia may be an investors [4]. Then in 2013 after a long and seemly slightly painful process they acquired US DNA sequencing startup Complete Genomics [3]. Finally on the 14th July 2017 they were listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange (company 300676) completing their transition in to a somewhat surprisingly highly commercial research institution.

The Chinese wikipedia page now lists 6 business units: BGI Research Institute, BGI Technology Service Co., Ltd. , BGI Health, BGI Agriculture, BGI Genetics Institute and BGI Cloud Computing.

Glassdoor reviews for BGI Shenzhen seem pretty reasonable (mostly complaining about the pay). Glassdoor reviews for Complete Genomics post acquisition seem to indicate that much development work was transitioned to China, and tantalizingly that the “omega sequencer project” was killed.

That about wraps it up for the business side of things. I will continue to add information as I come across it (not sure what information Chinese companies need to make available, but if anyone knows I’d be most interested in revenue projections etc.). I’ve covered the technology they acquired from Complete Genomics and plan to cover other aspects of their business too.