The advent of next-generation sequencing has revolutionized biology and many other fields. Sequencing is now used to develop new drugs, understand personal ancestry and predisposition to certain diseases, improve yields in agriculture, find new oil fields, and in many other areas. DNA sequencing is becoming as indispensable as computing in many industries.  

One of the first questions any player in this space needs to answer is how to get access to the sequencing capacity. The key questions that arise right away are: Do I buy sequencing equipment, set up my own lab, and do my own sequencing or do I ask another facility to do it for me? And if the latter - how do I find the lab that does the best job for me in terms of cost, reliability, quality, and turnaround time?  

To help answer the first question we at NGX Bio compared the total cost of ownership and operating various sequencing platforms with the prices of outsourcing. To calculate the total cost of ownership we have included the price of the platform itself depreciated over its lifetime, the service contracts, minimal personnel required to service the equipment and the cost of the reagents. Turns out that unless you plan to run a massive amount of sequencing on the same platform over its entire lifetime, outsourcing is a much more cost-effective way of getting your sequencing projects done.  

In most cases one would need to keep the sequencer utilized close to 50% over its lifetime (including nights and weekends) in order to justify purchasing. Given the current estimates that average sequencing platform utilization is around 30% - purchasing is not an economically sensible solution for most companies and labs.  

Figure 1. Total cost of sequencing internally vs outsourcing 

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Turnaround Time

The other key variable is the expected turnaround time. By owning your own equipment you can hope to have a faster turnaround time given that you control the access and do not need to ship the materials to another facility. However, this is not as straightforward as it seems. Indeed, if the machine is not utilized very much at all then it implies that one often does not have enough samples to even fill the full run (such as a full flowcell or at times more). This does not only increase the cost but also forces one to wait. If the utilization is high and approaches 50% then by definition the machine is busy quite a bit of time and one still needs to wait. The spikiness of the demand is another problem. Many labs are expected to have a lot of work at time and no work at all at other times. This means again that at the times of the work crunch the waiting can be substantial.  

Outsourcing, on the other hand, allows one to develop a consistent routine where both the costs are low and the turnaround time is predictable and never excessive. Whether you need to do one sample or ten thousand, the massive sequencing capacity of the sequencing facilities overall in principle is capable of doing all the sequencing in parallel and thus fast.  

Which equipment should I buy or use?

Another problem is choosing the right platform. Many projects require the use of multiple sequencing platforms given that they are designed to provide different costs and benefits. For instance, MiSeq gives one an ability to get much longer reads and get them very fast but at the cost of low throughput and high cost per base pair. HiSeqX gives a very low cost per base but takes longer and is much more expensive to purchase. The right answer for most people is that different projects would require access to different equipment. Moreover, given that this field is evolving very rapidly and new machines are constantly being introduced, it is generally prohibitively expensive to buy them all as soon as they appear. All these considerations tip the scale strongly towards outsourcing.  

How do I find the right outsourcing partner or partners?

We at NGX Bio discovered that many (albeit not all) sequencing labs are able to provide the researcher with a high-quality sequencing data. On the other hand, the costs, turnaround times, the level of customer and project support vary significantly. In our recent study we found out that the pricing difference between different providers of the same sequencing products could be over 100% (Figure 2). And it could take a researcher to wait for her sequencing data up to five times longer on average if she sends her work to the wrong provider. Some providers have excellent customer service but many do not. This heterogeneity generates a substantial hurdle in using sequencing outsourcing in a consistent way.  

Figure 2: Cost comparison between cores for a single NextSeq 500 High-Output PE150 run.

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The NGX Bio model

The analysis above convinced us that outsourcing is the right solution for many if not most labs and companies. But we also discovered that heterogeneity among providers means that the most reliable and cost- and time-effective way of addressing one’s sequencing needs is to partner with an expert who has access to multiple validated providers and platforms, has experience and knowledge about the comparative qualifications, pricing and turnaround times. This allows the researcher to eliminate the guesswork of picking the right provider and focus on analyzing and reporting on the sequencing data. We have built such a network and we can help you get your work done economically, with a predictable turnaround time, on any equipment available in the world.