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Portable Genomics founder struggling to finance startup

Portable Genomics LLC, a San-Diego based biotech company, is creating a way to condense an individual's letter-heavy genomic data into a simple iTunes format.

Users will be able to whip out their mobile devices at appointments and quickly and efficiently present doctors with visual "albums" of their genetic conditions and diseases they are most at risk for.

Doctors can then keep an eye out and prescribe preventive medicine for their patients, if needed.

“We want to have more user-friendly access to genomic information through a kind of interface everyone understands," said Patrick Merel, founder of Portable Genomics.

The company needs $1 million of seed capital to start operations and hire seven employees, he said.

“We are still running on spare time and my own money,” he said. “Everyone is working for free. That has been for too long now."

Applying for two patents on his own dime was costly, he added.

He resigned last month as molecular biology development group leader at University Hospital of Bordeaux, where he's worked since 2008.

The idea for Portable Genomics was born a few years ago over beers in his hometown in France, but Merel had to move to the United States to get the company off the ground.

That's because Europe is restrictive when it comes to gathering personal genomic information, and Merel's brainchild was unwelcome in France.

Merel has Twitter to thank for transplanting his biotech company to San Diego all the way from France. He was contacted across the pond via the social networking service by ai-one inc., a maker of biologically inspired intelligence, and the forward-thinking companies formed a quick rapport. Ai-one, which has an office in La Jolla, offered up some neighboring space to Merel.

Meeting with Connect and CommNexus gave him the extra push of confidence he needed to transplant his family and new career to San Diego.

The invitation was a needed one. France shooed him out of the country, complaining his company raised bioethics concerns.

“They told me because the consumer genomics market started in the U.S., why not start the company in the U.S.,” he said. “It's forbidden by law in France. You can be fined $15,000 and one year in jail."

With the move out of the way, Merel's latest obstacle has been raising money stateside.

By year’s end, he’d like to raise $4 million to tack on seven more employees to bolster its bio IT team and build out infrastructure.

“We are molecular biologists, not programmers,” he said.

He said the company is in active discussions with a major leader in San Diego.

In the meantime, the company recently sent documents to seven local individual investors to generate interest.

“The more we have, the better,” he said. “I am glad to see that this community is starting to understand the genomics industry coming to the consumer and health care market."

Still, he thinks the process of getting monetary support is moving at a glacial pace.

“While people are having the 'wow' effect when they see my project and prototypes, it’s still a long time until people get their pen and write a check. It’s really slow,” he said.

Another hurdle has been obtaining a visa to work in the states. Since he qualified as entrepreneur status, U.S. Immigration Services told Merel he needed to raise $150,000 before applying for a visa.

He showed he was good for the capital in April 2011 but was told it was not enough.

“They asked me for details, more proof of concept and more investors,” he said.

He calls the issue a “formality” and expects to get the visa soon, having recently met with U.S. Immigration at the Paris U.S. Embassy.

Green or red genetic markers, or tags, spell out levels of risks for a certain disease.

Merel, for example, is at high risk for glaucoma, and when he saw his ophthalmologist in France, he showed him his risks via his Portable Genomics prototype installed on his iPhone.

“Because of this he took a closer look. It’s a way to bring his attention to the higher risk my genomics has,” he said.

The company has no affiliation with Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), and the information is compatible with any MP3 player.

For users at risk of developing breast cancer, for example, they can subscribe to related RSS feeds, get alerts on their phone about scheduling their next mammography appointment and find specialized doctors nearby.

There’s also a social networking option to share data with family doctors.

Another business branch of Portable Genomics mixes science with entertainment, essentially giving music a new identity.

The app, called GeneGroove, plays a unique music melody from a user’s genome.

To avoid privacy issues, Portable Genomics apps will be using a patented process to anonymize consumer genomic data and to create a public key called the GeNumber.

The GeNumber embeds the uniqueness of the user's genome but doesn't allow the deciphering back to original genomic data.

GeneGroove is using a new melody creation engine with sample sounds created by local DJ Omar Paraiso, who spins house music here in San Diego.

Users will be able to pick from various music genres, and additional sounds by DJs and music producers will be added to diversify the music.

Future updates will also include options to remix favorite music tracks with personal genome data, letting users save and share music.

Merel is in talks with music stars to sequence their genome and produce their genomic music.

“We are getting close to have a major artist with us on that,” he said. “This could change a lot for us.”

The company is close to signing a major U.S. artist and will remix their genetic data with that of their fans.

“I am crossing my fingers because it would make such a buzz,” he said. “Let’s say I can remix Black Eyed Peas' music with my genome. This app will do that."

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