When Illumina introduced the HiSeq X Ten System in 2014, the San Diego-based company had reached the Holy Grail of human genome sequencing—the ability to sequence an entire genome for $1,000. University of Illinois alumnus Murali Venkatesan couldn’t have been prouder.
A Manager and Senior Scientist in Illumina’s Consumables Product Development Group, Venkatesan was part of the team that developed this breakthrough DNA sequencing technology, which can sequence eight entire human genomes in under 72 hours.
“To put that into perspective, the human genome project which was completed in 2003, took $3 billion and 10 years to sequence the first human genome,” he said. “Right now, we are moving exponentially faster than Moore’s Law in terms of dropping the cost of genome sequencing.”
According to Venkatesan, Illumina’s goal is to continue to drive down the cost of sequencing significantly, which could enable major advances in medicine, including improved early-stage cancer screening and diagnosis, non-invasive prenatal testing for the detection of birth defects, and the ability to map specific drugs and targeted therapies to individual patients based on their genotype, an area referred to as personalized medicine. In addition, the technology is already being adopted by law enforcement to solve crimes.
Earlier in his Illumina career, Venkatesan helped drive fundamental research efforts as part of the Advanced Research Group, including the exploration and development of third-generation single molecule DNA sequencing technologies and the development of the patterned flowcell technology that enabled the consumable flowcell in the HiSeq X Ten. Venkatesan was an inventor on over five key enabling patents in this area including Microarray Fabrication System and Method and Kinetic Exclusion Amplification of Nuclec Acid Libraries, and a core contributor in driving the patterned flowcell from concept to commercialization.
Looking back on his time at Illinois, Venkatesan appreciates the training he received in Bioengineering Professor Rashid Bashir’s research group. “Dr. Bashir promoted a lot of independence, challenged us to work on highly complex scientific problems, and inspired a lot of creative thinking and problem solving,” said Venkatesan, noting how this prepared him well for industry. “He was always accessible, gave you management experience and ownership of your projects, and is still a mentor for me today.”
In addition, Venkatesan appreciates the collaborative environment at the Micro + Nanotechnology Lab. “The breadth and depth of knowledge in electronics, microfabrication, and materials science was phenomenal,” he said. “There was a dynamic group of students and faculty who were always engaged with your work.”
Venkatesan encourages current MNTL students to work on problems that have real meaning, while not being afraid to take risks in their research. “Focus on high impact problems and ignore the skeptics and doubters,” he said. “People will tell you that something can’t be done, but we are proof that these things can be accomplished providing you have the right team and the right collaborations.”
MURALI VENKATESAN’S TOP 3 ACCOMPLISHMENTS SINCE GRADUATING FROM ILLINOIS
- He was part of the team at Illumina that developed a technology platform capable of sequencing an entire human genome for $1,000, making sequencing more affordable and accessible than ever before. “The $1,000 genome is revolutionizing science and technology,” he said. “Being part of that team is the number one trophy I have in my cabinet.” Venkatesan has since gone on to contribute to the development of several other platform technologies including the Nextseq 500 and Project Firefly, Illumina’s first tabletop CMOS-based sequencer.
- Recently, he completed an executive Management and Leadership program sponsored by Illumina through the University of California, San Diego while leading the Nanofabrication and Nanotechnology team in Product Development at Illumina. “It was an honor to be nominated by my peers to give the speech at our graduation ceremony.”
- He is currently building, training, and mentoring a team of research associates and senior scientists who continue to drive innovation and new product and platform development at Illumina.