Meet Ethiopian born entrepreneur Francis deSouza CEO of the $2.4 billion ILLUMINA


Bradley J. FikesContact Reporter

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Illumina is the largest genomics company in the world.

The DNA sequencers and related products from the San Diego biotech company have driven down the cost of sequencing a human genome to less than $1,000 each. This reduced expense greatly enlarges the number of patients who might be helped through detection of genetic disorders.

Aside from cost, Illumina’s newest instruments make it possible to sequence genomes in batches at the rate of one genome per hour.

These improvements in speed and pricing are enabling scientists, physicians and drug companies to expand the universe of uses for DNA analysis — from forensics to food safety to the tracking of changes in cancerous tumors.

Leading Illumina’s path is Francis deSouza, the company’s president and, since July, its CEO as well. He recently sat down with The San Diego Union-Tribune to discuss his life and his vision for Illumina. The following is an edited version of that conversation:

Q: Where were you born and what was your education?

A: I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My parents are both mixed. My mother is half Greek, half Ethiopian, and my father is half Portuguese, half Indian. We stayed in Addis Ababa until I was about 5 years old.

And then, with the communist revolution in Ethiopia, my parents fled and we ended up living in Dubai. That’s where I grew up and went to high school. And then I came to the U.S. for college.

I was always interested in science and math as a child. One of the things that happened as I was growing up is that my dad ended up losing his job. … (To help out the family,) I started to write computer software and see if I could sell that software. That ignited for me a lifelong passion for technology, for entrepreneurship. … That’s what propelled me to come to the U.S. for college and to study engineering.

Q:What did your father do?

A: He worked as a commercial representative for a Japanese company.

Q: When did you come to the United States?

A: I came to the United States in 1987. I was about 16 years old. I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Q: Why did you choose MIT?

A: I wanted to do something with science and engineering. So I did some research, and MIT was one of the colleges that floated to the top of the list in terms of its terrific tradition of science and engineering, but also its inventions and innovation. I was drawn to that.

And I remember talking to my parents about it. My dad dropped out of school when he was 13, so I told him, “This is what I want to do, this is where I want to go.” And I remember at the time he was disappointed. That was not the reaction I was expecting.

I finally understood what he meant. In Dubai, if you don’t end up in college, you go to an institute as a vocational school, where you learn how to fix air conditioners or be a car mechanic.

And I remember my dad told me, “I always thought you would end up going to college.” And I said, “Dad, MIT is a legitimate college.”

Q: What applications for your software skills did you envision at MIT?

A: I wasn’t thinking of any specific application, but MIT was such a wonderful place. I studied electrical engineering and computer science and got exposed to so many different disciplines. I really enjoyed my experience there.

I also did a research internship with IBM, so I got exposed to a bunch of incredibly smart people and a whole new set of academic disciplines, and I loved it.


Founded: 1998 in San Diego

Headquarters: San Diego

Other offices in: U.S. cities of San Francisco, Santa Clara, Redwood City and Madison, Wis. Foreign offices in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Singapore

Products and services: include DNA sequencers, research  supplies and prenatal testing

Employees: about 4,300 globally

Market value: $23.5 billion

Revenue in 2016: $2.4 billion

Main competitors: Roche and Thermo Fisher Scientific


Q: How did you get interested in the life sciences?

A: I got a call from Illumina when I was president of (the digital security company) Symantec. And initially I didn’t know what to make of it, but I was intrigued. I spent almost nine months with Jay (Flatley, the Illumina chairman whom deSouza replaced as CEO) and with the leadership team here, but also with people outside Illumina, just trying to understand what was happening in genomics.

And the more I dug in, the more I found that genomics is going to transform human health more than anything else out there. And so once you believe that, and once you believe in the mission of Illumina, I had to join.

Q: Why were they interested in you?

A: We spent a long time talking about it. What Jay was looking for, what the board was looking for, was somebody who had a number of skills. They wanted somebody who understood how to run companies at scale, and who was entrepreneurial. And they wanted both. Because Illumina is getting to be a bigger company, but one of the secret sauces of Illumina is our spirit of innovation and our ability to get things done that are both ambitious and fast.

What they were looking for was someone who had done startups but also had experience in big companies. And I’ve been with three startups before: One got sold to Verizon, one got sold to Microsoft, one got to sold to Symantec. And in my heart I’m an entrepreneur, even going back as a child trying to sell software.

So I’d done that, but I’d also done stints at Microsoft for a few years and at Symantec for a few years.

They were looking from a skills perspective at someone who was comfortable and curious (about learning). A lot of genomics is playing out right now. So if you’d studied it 20 years ago, that wouldn’t represent what’s happening today. So they wanted someone who had a certain aptitude and curiosity about new areas. And then specifically, they were looking for more and more software skills for the future.

Q: When did you know that you wanted to join Illumina?

A: It was one of those things where suddenly I knew I’d fallen in love with what Illumina could do, and what it was already doing. The more I learned, the more I uncovered opportunities where genomics and Illumina would make that big difference.

Whether it’s how we treat cancer, how we can improve reproductive-health outcomes, but also agriculture. Across a whole different set of industries, it was clear to me that genomics was leading this revolution. But what really did it for me was the time I spent with the team on the campus.

Illumina is a truly special company with an amazing culture. It’s a company of very smart people and of very humble people. It’s a company where the ability to collaborate is deeply prized and cherished. So it allows us to do one of these really ambitious projects.

So, spending time here, I thought, “I love the mission of the company and I love the people of the company.”