At the recent Y Combinator Demo Day, an event that brings together promising technology startups with prospective investors, one company particularly stood out in terms of future vision. 54gene, a biotechnology company founded by Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong of Nigeria, was the Y Combinator startup that really caught the attention of venture capital firms because the problem it seeks to address is of the utmost important not only to Africa but also to the entire world. What 54gene is working on makes so much global sense that it is surprising to learn that it has not already been developed.
Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong is a scientist who understands diversity in its purest sense, all the way down to genetics. Dr. Ene-Obong studied at the University of London, where he specialized in the field of cancer biology, and he is absolutely correct in pointing out the following disparity: although Africa is home to the most diverse genetic pool in the world, only 2 percent of the Continent’s genome has been collected and contributed to global genetic banks. Consequently, medical researchers are shorthanded in terms of developing advanced treatments and medications. Identifying and studying genetic mutations in certain populations is a key aspect of pharmaceutical research, which is why Dr. Ene-Obong intends to turn 54gene into the world’s first African biobank.
Dr. Ene-Obong’s biobank project is as as ambitious as it is crucial for medical research. As the situation currently stands, lack of access to the African genome means that the continent is missing out on advanced medications produced by means of DNA research. In recent years, a couple of medications used to treat high cholesterol and osteoporosis were developed by pharmaceutical research teams that investigated genetic mutations in some African populations. Imagine all the medical discoveries that could be unlocked if researchers had access to the full African genome. The first benefit to the genetic research community would be the ability to design innovative medications to treat conditions such as cancer, diabetes and sickle cell anemia in African patients; we are talking about more than a billion people in the Continent and 140 million who are part of the diaspora.
54gene expects to collect 40,000 DNA samples for its Nigerian biobank this year. The company has already reached out to six other African nations where genetics biobanks can be set up in the near future. Dr. Ene-Obong admits that 54gene will run into challenges as it works on this project. Reliable electricity is a must for biobanks, and this is something that many African nations struggle with. Since the DNA sequencing process is not widely available in Africa, 54gene is forced to send DNA samples to the United States. Overcoming these obstacles requires capital, which the company has thus far been able to secure through venture investors.