According to recent stats, the global drug discovery market has been estimated at $20 billion with potential to grow by 12%. While the stats reported seem promising, Africa hardly holds a position on the landscape currently dominated by Pfizer, Merck, Bayer and similar companies.
That is to say that less than 3% of genetic material used in global pharmaceutical research is from Africa, which when compared to the rest of the world is quite appalling given that Africans and people of African descent are reported to be more genetically diverse than any other population.
This further points to the possibility that greater availability of African genomic data could perhaps lead to medical breakthroughs for the continent’s 1.2 billion people.
That’s exactly the gap which the African startup 54gene is tapping.
What is 54gene?
Founded back in 2019, the company headquartered in Washington, U.S., is a Nigeria-based startup that collects African genetic code for use in health research and drug development. The startup plans to exert leverage over the pricing process through its practice of co-developing drugs.
The company generates genetic insights from research cohorts in the world’s most diverse populations to improve the development, availability and efficiency of therapeutics and diagnostics that will prove beneficial to all populations including Africa.
Additionally, 54gene earned praise when it opened a lab in Lagos that’s capable of human whole genome sequencing, the first such facility by a private company in Africa. The company told Quartz that its biobank has five times the capacity for sample collection than it had 12 months ago, and that it now generates revenue from its diagnostics operations, which wasn’t the case at the beginning of 2020.
Besides money, the other factor critical to drug research is talent, a rare resource in Nigeria, with doctors and pharmacists leaving the country in large numbers. However, 54gene caters to this problem by successfully recruiting and training talent for the data pipeline that informs its drug discovery efforts.
Background of Founders
Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong
Abasi Ene-Obong completed Masters from the Imperial College London in Human Molecular Genetics, after which he went for and completed his Phd in Cancer Biology at the London School of Medicine and Industry (University of London).
After working in research during the initial years of his professional career, he joined Panasonic in 2013 as a Strategy Consultant. Over the course of the next few years, he served in the health industry in different capacities, until 2019, when he founded the startup, 54gene.
With the world’s analyzed genomes coming mostly from anywhere that isn’t Africa, the continent remains a valuable source of new genetic information for health and drug discovery research. Since its launch in 2019, 54gene has been at the forefront of bridging this divide in the global genomics market.
The company conducts and leverages this research to ensure Africans are recipients of upcoming drug and medical discoveries. To conduct its research, the company recruits voluntary participants who donate genetic samples via swab or blood tests.
But instead of depending on third-party health centres like hospitals or sending the samples abroad for analysis, 54gene launched its own genetics sequencing and microarray lab in Lagos last September. The company did this in partnership with U.S.-based biotech company Illumina.
Company’s founder, Ene-Obong, also shared that in addition to the genotyping capabilities offered, the lab also provides whole-genome sequencing (WGS) and whole-exome sequencing (WES).
With these three in place, the company can advance genomics research and expand its ability to help scientists and researchers in Africa.
Series B Round: Raised $25 million
In September 2021, the company secured $25 million in Series B funding to bolster its efforts. The round was led by venture capitalists Cathay AfricInvest Innovation Fund. Some existing investors like Adjuvant Capital, KdT Ventures, and Ingressive Capital also participated in the round.
Series A Round: Raised $15 million
In April 2020, the African genomics research, services, and development company closed a Series A round of $15M, led by Adjuvant Capital, a life sciences fund backed by the International Finance Corporation, Novartis, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The round further included participation from :
- Raba Capital
- V8 Capital
- Ingressive Capital, and follow on investment from Y Combinator
- Better Ventures
- Fifty Years
- KdT Ventures
- Aera VC
- Pioneer Fund
Seed Round: Raised $4.5 million
In July 2019, the company secured a $4.5 million investment from Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Better Ventures, KdT Ventures, Hack VC and Techammer, among others.
In addition to setting its first lab, the company is also increasing its biobanking capacity by 5x.
The newly-raised capital will be deployed to expand the company’s capabilities in sequencing, target identification and validation, clinical trials and drug discovery for the benefit of both Africans and the global population. The funding will also aid 54gene’s expansion across the African continent, as the company advances in precision medicine by creating access to accurate diagnostics for African patients.