Photograph — ISG

Healthtech startup, 54gene, has set out to build the world’s first biobank for African DNA database after securing $4.5 million in seed round funding. Participant investors in the early-stage investment include Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Better Ventures, KdT Ventures, Hack VC and Techammer.

The new startup, which is focused on the diagnosis and medical treatment of people, is looking to build the largest datasets of genomic and phenotypic consented data of Africans. This will help address the lack of African genetic material used in global pharmaceutical research. The continent’s contribution to the data used in Genome-wide Association Studies (GWAS) stood at a meagre two percent in 2018.

By understanding the genetic profile diseases that are prevalent amongst Africans, Founder and CEO of 54gene, Abasi Ene-Obong, averred that the firm can deliver population health management strategies to people of African origin all over the world, helping to balance medical care for all with help of technology.

On the minuscule position Africa occupies in the global genomic database, the Founding Partner at Fifty Years, Seth Bannon, said it is “a dirty secret that the world’s genomic datasets are overwhelmingly Caucasian (90 percent). By building datasets that are more inclusive, 54Gene will help democratize molecular medicine while unlocking insights that will lead to better therapeutics for everyone.” 

With the new funding, the startup is well positioned to achieve its mission. “This capital infusion allows us to move swiftly. We are delighted to welcome like-minded, highly experienced investors, who will embark on this journey with us, to secure Africa’s pharma future and to impact millions of people’s lives through improved healthcare and drugs provision,” Ene-Obong said.

According to the statement issued by the company, the funds will be deployed in pioneering and building the biobank for African DNA, install electronic data capture systems in the leading tertiary hospitals in Nigeria and expand its workforce both in the U.S. and Nigeria, ahead of its expansion plans on the continent. 

Having successfully piloted the project in three of Nigeria’s largest academic tertiary hospitals, the startup is expanding its biobanking activities to 10 of the country’s academic tertiary hospitals. The unique data sets obtained will be used exclusively for research to address the significant gap in the genomics market, using African DNA to focus on drug discovery opportunities. More so, the biobank’s focus has expanded from oncology to include cardiology, neurology, endocrinology and sickle cell disease.

Founder and CEO 54gene, Dr Abasi Ene-Obong. Photo credit: 54gene

Dr Ene-Obong further explained that the genomic revolution has taken place everywhere except for Africa which is home to more than one billion people. “What many people don’t realize is how genetically diverse Africa is, and that Africans have married within their tribes for thousands of years, which makes our DNA ideal for studying loss-of-function type mutations that can be replicated into new drugs,” the founder added.

With the global pharmaceutical industry expected to reach $1.34 trillion by 2020, 54gene is committed to curating one of the most “interesting genomic and phenotypic datasets in the world that will power the development of new drugs that benefit people of all races.” By focusing its attention on Africa and the African Diaspora, the company is poised to chart new territory for the global pharma industry.

The company hopes to have secured 40,000 biobank samples by the end of 2019. To realise this, it is working closely with relevant stakeholders on the continent including research institutions, pharmaceutical companies, technology partners and healthcare regulators.

Founded in January by Dr Abasi Ene-Obong, 54gene is an African-focused health tech and AI start-up. The firm partners with pharmaceutical companies to identify new drug targets and develop treatments for diseases, and provides genetic testing and molecular diagnostics services to patients and physicians in Africa.

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