Genome technologists are on the verge of fulfilling a goal that was once considered so far off as to be almost fictional: the sequencing of human genomes for US$1,000 apiece. Eleven years ago, when genome sequencing cost tens of millions of dollars, scientists from the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland, said that, should it be met, the $1,000 goal “would revolutionize biomedical research and clinical practice”.

The price of sequencing has indeed dropped — and this develop­ment is changing science and beginning to change medicine. In retrospect, it may seem that it was inevitable that the cost would come down from what it was at the close of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Entrepreneurs and scientists were already working on technologies to replace Sanger sequencing, the workhorse of the genome project. But these entrepreneurs and other genome technologists give at least some of the credit for the precipitous price drop to the NHGRI. In 2003 it launched the $230-million Advanced Sequencing Technology programme, to support research to improve genome technology in academia and industry (see page 294). The programme will give out its final grants this year, but it has provided some key lessons on how to set up similar sponsored innovation efforts.

Set a clear goal. The NHGRI programme — often referred to as the $1,000 genome programme — shares this feature with other successful technological endeavours, including the British government’s eighteenth-century Longitude Prize for a practical method to determine a ship’s position; NASA’s Apollo Moon shot in the 1960s; and even the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s contest to sponsor the creation of self-driving cars, first held in 2004. Stating a tangible goal galvanizes the field, harnessing researchers’ collective brainpower to achieve a common aim.

Set the bar high, but not too high. The Archon Genomics X Prize was cancelled last year after only two teams signed up to take on its challenge: the sequencing of 100 complete human genomes in 30 days at unparalleled accuracy and low cost. That test was widely seen as too difficult, dissuading researchers from trying. The NHGRI, by contrast, seems to have set a more reasonable goal; before setting $1,000 as its benchmark, it undertook a broad consultation of scientists in the field.

Cheaper sequencing is changing science and beginning to change medicine.

Spur competition. The 97 groups awarded grants by the NHGRI programme so far are made up of academics and companies working on a diverse range of concepts. Recipients have included a who’s who of the sequencing industry past and present, as well as a huge array of people working on speculative ideas. Each grant — ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to a few million — is small compared with the amount of funding needed to take an idea all the way to market. But the spreading of money between so many competitors keeps the field lively, and keeps market leaders on their toes.

Foster cooperation. The programme convenes all grant recipients every year for a meeting, where all — including those from industry — are expected to describe their progress. Jeffery Schloss, the amiable head of the programme, deserves much of the credit for coaxing grant recipients to share information, and for promoting an atmosphere of collegiality that has moved the field forward.

Seed a broad range of ideas.The vast majority of the programme’s grants — 75% so far — have gone to academics rather than companies. This has nurtured ideas that are too speculative for industry, ensuring that when the market weeds out less successful companies or throws up a monopoly, there is a nursery of new concepts waiting to keep the field from stagnating.

Be flexible. The NHGRI deserves credit for allowing Schloss to operate the programme differently from most of its schemes. For instance, reviewers were allowed to award small chunks of money to parts of an application that seemed promising, rather than cutting off funding for every project that failed to meet a milestone. This allowed the programme to provide more grants than would otherwise have been possible.

Of course, just incorporating these six elements into a programme does not guarantee success. Entrepreneurs and academic scientists have contributed ideas and drive to genomics advances, and venture capitalists have contributed money. And although the $1,000 goal is within striking distance, it has not yet enabled the depth of understanding needed to make full medical or biological use of the knowledge derived from ever more genomes. Attacking that problem is the next challenge of genomics. But in part because of the $1,000 genome programme, biologists are now in a position to address it.