Honouring early nanopore pioneers and reflecting on our US heritage

Sir Isaac Newton once remarked that scientific discovery was built on the shoulders of giants – and the journey of Oxford Nanopore Technologies is no exception. Multiple strands of inspiration, research, discovery, and hard work on US and UK soil coalesced over decades to turn a flash of inspiration into the sensing platform our user communities benefit from today.

Yesterday in Washington DC, the Association of American Universities and the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Golden Goose Awards celebrated three pivotal innovators whose ideas sparked the development of this platform. The Golden Goose honours scientists who took risks that resulted in unexpected and transformative discoveries – and I extend heartfelt congratulations to early nanopore pioneers, Mark Akeson and David Deamer from UC Santa Cruz and Daniel Branton from Harvard University for this well-deserved distinction. These scientists took an original idea and spent decades overcoming community scepticism to explore its transformative potential.

"Golden Goose Award 2023"

As we rapidly expand our footprint in the US – building on our US growth of 72% in the first half of 2023 – reflecting on these origins becomes ever more relevant. Despite our name, the company has deep American roots, with technology developed on US soil, a growing US workforce and a vast network of thousands of American scientists actively utilising our technology.

Truly novel ideas don’t come along very often, and when they do – like the printing press or telescope – they fundamentally change everything. In 2005, we set up Oxford Nanopore in the UK to commercialise a novel sensing technique. But the journey to get there started many years prior when Hagan Bayley, a British academic working at Texas A&M, decided he wanted to explore the hole punching proteins (known as a nanopore) embedded in the cell walls that transport nutrients. Along the way, the US Navy funded Bayley to investigate whether nanopores could be used as a sensing device to track submarines. Through his work, Bayley pioneered elements of single nanopore molecule sensing, transplanting its functionality from organic systems to silicon chips.

A paper published by Bayley caught the attention of Deamer, Akeson and Branton, who were similarly interested in utilising nanopore sensing to measure the structure of DNA.

A few years prior, Deamer had been struck with a related idea for DNA sequencing as he was driving along a forested road in Oregon in 1989. In a fabled story, he pulled to the side of the road and scribbled down the concept, which became the early genesis for pulling a single strand of DNA through a channel to read its genetic sequence.

Flash forward to 2005, Spike Willcocks and I visited Deamer and Akeson at UC Santa Cruz, to share our vision of commercialising nanopore sequencing and bringing this powerful and portable new technology into the hands of scientists globally. Deamer supported our idea, and yet it would still take more years of intense R&D to develop a scalable product, the MinION, and then more still to advance the platform to where it is now. There are now more than 2,600 patents in our portfolio, reflecting the complexity of the technology and its future pathway.

Today, Oxford Nanopore serves more than 43,000 community users across 120 countries. Our community of scientists have published more than 8,600 peer-reviewed papers, spanning human health, the environment, agriculture and more. And to come full circle, the US has become our fastest-growing market, and we continue to expand our US-based team to meet the growing demand.

Our long-term vision was and continues to be to enable the analysis of anything by anyone, anywhere. Just as computing was once centralised in large mainframes, our goal has always been to transform DNA sequencing from the domain of specialised centres into a tool accessible by anyone with an interest in genomics – from students to clinicians and more. We envision a world where the barriers to useful genomic information are nonexistent.

The Golden Goose Award reminds us of the serendipity and magic inherent in the scientific process. It underscores the deep roots and interconnectedness of our global scientific community. Oxford Nanopore's narrative is a testament to these principles, a tale of passion, collaboration, and the relentless pursuit of innovation.

As we celebrate this year's awardees, I want to remember the value of fostering research and collaboration across borders. It is these collaborations, often unexpected, that pave the way for discoveries that reshape our lives, this planet and beyond.