Positioning Knome’s Genome Sequencing Analysis as the Foundation of Personalized Medicine

Logo for Sterling's biotech client KnomeThe clinicians at Knome offer whole genome and exome sequencing and interpretation services to biomedical researchers and physician-directed families. From its headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., Knome is responsible for interpreting more human genomes than any other company in the world. In mid-2009, Knome turned to Sterling Communications to implement a media outreach plan to enhance awareness among both consumers and the scientific research community of the importance of whole genome sequencing to the future of personalized medicine.

“As our services are becoming affordable to a much larger audience, we feel a responsibility to open conversations with multiple stakeholders around the positive impact consumer education and awareness of genetic information can have on health and well-being. We were looking for a strategic communications partner with deep experience in developing nascent markets, and Sterling Communications was an ideal fit.” – Jorge Conde, Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Knome.

The Challenge

The commoditization of simple DNA tests has resulted in a blossoming of personal genomics companies offering cheap direct-to-consumer testing services. Knome asked Sterling to make a clear distinction between companies offering $129 off-the-shelf kits that test for only a handful of genetic disorders and Knome’s physician-directed, whole-genome sequencing and analysis services that render a complete genetic picture at the individual level. Knome wanted researchers, pharmaceutical companies and consumers alike to understand that its whole genome sequencing and analysis services are the only way to get all the data necessary to understand personal health considerations – as well as ancestry – at an individual level.

The Approach

To effectively focus limited resources, Sterling orchestrated visibility-building and thought-leadership activities at key events and leveraged the planned news cycles to maximize awareness and drive revenue. Specifically, Sterling:

  • Built Knome’s visibility by regularly updating top-tier media and bloggers on company developments and appearances
  • Built mindshare through outreach to influencers at key events (e.g., GET Conference, TEDMED, the Human Genome Project’s 10th anniversary, etc.)
  • Positioned Knome spokespersons as go-to resources for expert commentary by giving media solicited and unsolicited commentary on market developments
  • Leveraged relationships with key partners and investors for joint PR around new services and financing
  • Developed a stable of respected academics and researchers to act as third-party validation for Knome
  • Utilized the first annual KnomeDISCOVERY research awards program as a platform for a multi-phased outreach campaign to drive more media exposure.

Sterling was particularly effective in securing mainstream press and consumer attention by involving celebrities in a series of “firsts” in genome sequencing and research.

As part of the PBS-TV genealogy series, Faces of America, Knome analyzed the whole genome sequences of Harvard historian Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and his father. Sterling coordinated with the PBS production team to secure a slot on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America for which Knome provided the visual aids to Gates’ interview with host George Stephanopoulos.

Thanks to an ongoing relationship with freelancer Chris Ayres, rocker Ozzy Osbourne’s ghostwriter, Sterling secured an invitation for Knome to sequence Osbourne’s genome. Sterling carefully negotiated Knome TV appearances and magazine interviews around the embargo date of Ayres’ exclusive feature in The (London) Sunday Times, as well as additional findings held in confidence until a joint Knome-Osbourne presentation at the TEDMED conference.

The Results

Sterling secured feature coverage for Knome by wire services Associated Press, Dow Jones News and Reuters and in such mainstream media outlets as BNET, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Boston Globe, The Economist, Fox Business Network, The Huffington Post, The London Times, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and Xconomy, as well as in industry outlets such as Bio-IT World, Fierce Biotech, GEN, GenomeWeb, Nature Biotech, Nature Genetics, Pharmaceutical Processing and SmartPlanet.

On Knome’s behalf, Sterling engaged in blog conversations and tweeted regularly on company and industry news to raise the company’s profile as an expert resource. Sterling also leveraged Twitter as a mechanism for nurturing relationships with target media and, as a result, grew Knome’s Twitter followers to over 900 in less than a year. Sterling also exploited both Twitter and Facebook to promote the KnomeDISCOVERY research awards program and the winning research projects.

The Osbourne project helped Knome achieve far and away the most interest in – and coverage of – any single piece of Knome research to date, resulting in more than 140 articles. Scientific American referenced Knome’s analysis of Ozzy’s Neandertal link among their top 10 science stories of the year. Coverage varied from leading mainstream business and consumer outlets, such as The Economist, The Guardian, The New York Post, New Scientist, Rolling Stone, Toronto Star and The Wall Street Journal, to broadcast programs including Fox & Friends, MSNBC and Sirius/XM’s The Jay Thomas Show, to such industry outlets as Bio-IT World, MIT Technology Review and Scientific American.

The attention Knome received as a result of its high-profile projects led to interest from French diagnostics giant bioMérieux, which not only signed a strategic agreement for product development and licensing but also purchased a $5 million equity stake in Knome.