Can 54gene revolutionize precision medicine?

Oddup Team
November 1, 2021

African biorepositories have historically been underfunded despite the continent being the most biodiverse. According to various studies, when it comes to new advances in genetic mapping and manipulation in the 21st century, the entire African continent has been essentially  left out. The genetic data used for various pharmaceutical research and development of innovative drugs is found to be almost entirely Caucasian while  African genetic material makes up just 2%.                

54gene is trying to fill this inexplicable and long-existing gap between genetic materials and  global pharmaceutical research in the future. 

“As of the time we launched, less than 3% of all genome wide association studies globally had been conducted in Africa. There was a lack of data coming from Africans… and the diaspora,” 54gene founder and CEO Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong said.

The scarcity of African genomics in mainstream pharmaceutical research,makes the biodiverse continent invaluable for new genetic information.

“The genomics capabilities in Africa are really non-existent,” Ene-Obong of 54gene said. “That’s one reason you’re not getting genetic data out. We want to change that.”

The company has received significant funding from a total of 19 companies including Cathay Innovation and Adjuvant Capital. The African genomics startup has also received support from various partners including Genentech, World Economic Forum, Paradigm4, etc. since inception. 

Abasi Ene-Obong and his ambition to unlock medical discoveries

The company was founded in January 2019 but the idea behind 54gene hatched long before in the subconscious mind of the co-founder Abasi Ene-Obong. The name of the company is derived from the 54 countries that make up the entire African continent. 

Ene-Obong was born in Calabar, Nigeria which is known in history for being the first capital of Nigeria and a port for the nation’s slave trade during colonial times. 

Both of his parents were academics which shaped Ene-Obong’s mind at an early age. He has a doctorate in cancer biology from the University of London. Later he completed masters’ in business administration from Claremont College in California. His masters’ degree in molecular genetics from the imperial college of London made  Ene-Obong more than qualified for leading 54gene.         

The first time Ene-Obong took a class on genetics in the imperial college of London, he was fascinated by the subject and readily made up his mind to do something that brings the African continent into the global healthcare conversation. Once he was done with academics, Abasi Ene-Obong went on to join a leading healthcare organization that included  Fortune 100 pharmaceutical companies. He spent a bit of time in the government as a management consultant with PwC and IQVIA. Ene-Obong wanted to leave consulting and start a company but he was not sure what it would be about. He decided to return to his roots in Nigeria to figure out an opportunity to start a venture. Looking at his expertise and interests led Ene-Obong to believe that African genetic data  can translate to medical breakthroughs. He established and refined the business model for 54gene and made it his goal to attract Y Combinator. 

Around that time, Ene-Obong crossed paths with Ogochukwu Francis Osifo, former co-founder and CTO of Stack Diagnostics, a Nigerian genomics-focused health care company. 

“I always wanted to do stuff that brought the African continent into the global healthcare debate,” says CEO of 54gene, Ene-Obong.

Osifo holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from National Open University, alumni of Lagos Business School. He is currently the CTO of another platform DiagnoseMeAfrica which offers precise medical testing to the African population with top-tier equipment and technology. Osifo’s passion for technology as a means of innovation across Africa and the rest of the world won him an award in 2015’s AppCircus Challenge, held in Barcelona.

“I am passionate about the impact technology can have in driving granular sustainable innovation across Africa and the rest of the world.”- says Ogochukwu Osifo.

Osifo was a talented tech entrepreneur that Ene-Obong was looking for to handle the 54gene product development. As alumni of the Fate Foundation, Osifo worked for years to empower African youth using his skills to bring career sustainability. He gladly accepted to join 54gene’s team because Ene-Obong’s aims and goals aligned with his own.

We started 54gene to significantly improve the inclusion of African populations in global genomics research and I am glad to see our work is being recognized. Our mission is to continue driving innovation and change in research and I look forward to the opportunities that arise as a result of being supported by the global Endeavor network in expanding 54gene’s impact globally.” According to Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong, CEO and Founder of 54gene.

Platform and Programs Offered by 54gene

54gene came into existence as a genomics research, services, and development startup that is striving to improve the situation where the inclusion of African populations in clinical global genomics research dwindles. The company recently made it to the Time Magazine list of 12 innovations that could transform the world’s healthcare in 2020. Following is an overview of what 54gene brings to the table in terms of genomics and medical research:

The 54gene Biobank

54gene Biobank is a unique biorepository meant for responsibly storing samples and clinical genetic data to accelerate research into a new type of therapeutics. The company website states that this Biobank is well-equipped with unique data sets, equipment, laboratories, and other in-house capabilities. 54gene has a capable team of scientists for clinical and research to develop not only therapeutics but also drugs and vaccines for a wide range of diseases. The 54gene innovative Biobank allows them to accelerate novel discoveries through efficient research infrastructure.

Clinical Program Groups

This early-stage venture is also active through several clinical program groups that make use of their regulatory, scientific, and operational capabilities. These program groups are meant to provide affordable, customized, and unique clinical trial solutions in Africa. To achieve this, 54gene partnered with several global and local companies for the safety and efficiency of the product.

  • Clinical Trial Management

54gene provides its partners a customizable and high-quality approach towards any specific medical study. Through clinical trial management, either a part of the entire clinical study can be outsourced to 54gene based on the preference of customers. 

“I can say we will prioritize diseases that affect Africans disproportionately,” Ene-Obong said.

  • Regulatory Affairs

54gene eases the otherwise difficult regulatory submissions needed for particular regional requirements for its partners. The company shares regulatory strategies and operational support with others that could streamline the process of clinical validation and open doors for market access for medical products within a region.

  • Sample & Supply Management

As the name suggests, in this clinical program, the 54genes team of researchers implements studies and sample management specifications. The expertise and background of 54genes research team members make them perfectly skilled for the job that requires highly trained professionals.

  • Pharmacovigilance

A particular product’s safety information must be collected, monitored, and frequently reported to ensure the wellbeing of patients. The chances of success for any clinical study balance itself upon proper maintenance of products with post-approval licenses. 54gene’s Pharmacovigilance program helps to do exactly that.

Market Growth, Competitors, and Partners

54gene has come a long way since it was founded two years ago. Both the company’s team and valuation has expanded in recent years as more organizations, biopharmaceuticals, and foundations joined the group of partners. 54gene is backed by a total of 22 investors since it announced the seed funding round 7 months after it was founded. According to sources, the Global Genomics Market is growing at a CAGR of 15.1% from 2021-2027. Experts say that it would reach USD 57,231.1 million by 2027.

Right now 54genes operates through two offices, the one situated in Lagos being the primary office. The other office of the company is situated in Washington, District of Columbia, United States. Nigeria lacks expert clinicians out of which many have been relocating to other parts of the world. That is why 54gene is concentrating on recruitment and training of talent. There are more than 250 employees associated with 54gene, helping the startup to rediscover the long-forgotten genomics capabilities of Africa. Per an estimate,the company hasmad up to $5 million revenue.

54gene brings in revenue through paid partnerships with notable pharma companies and uses the two office locations to collect materials and run clinical programs to help these partnerships to grow. In 2019, 54gene collected data from 10 of the largest research and public hospitals based in Nigeria and had approximately 40,000 samples in its aforementioned Biobank to delve deeper into its research and study. The number of samples held in the Biobank reached 60,000 after the recent Series B round. Now the capacity of 54gene Biobank is approximately 300,000 samples.

54gene has already received approval from institutional review boards related to each of the Nigerian hospitals from where it received genetic samples of cancer patients and other cardiovascular diseases like anemia and diabetes. As for the competitors of 54gene, there are some companies based in the US like:

  • BillionToOne: It is a 2016-established precision diagnostics private company. In June this year, BillionToOne closed a Series B funding round amassing $55 million. The total amount of funding raised by the company is approximately $87.5.
  • HeMemics Biotechnologies: Two years ago, this biotech company founded in 2019 raised $2.5 million from AMVI Partners.
  • Sema4: The billion-dollar health information company was founded in 2017. Sema4 recently collaborated with Avera Health. A year ago, the US-based company raised $121 million from investors like Moore Capital, BlackRock, Decheng, etc.

Notable 54gene Partners 

54gene has partnered with many biopharma, corporates, and global organizations including Genentech, Aliko Dangote Foundation, World Economic Forum, Illumina, Parexel, Paradigm4, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Out of these partnerships, Illumina remains one of the most notable collaborators that 54gene has till now.

Illumina partnered with 54gene back in September 2020 to combine its technology, diagnostic capability, and research to make precision medicine equally accessible for all. Upon agreeing to the partnership with Illumina, both of the companies established a new and fully-equipped genome sequencing laboratory in Nigeria. 

Ene-Obong said “The partnership would help 54Gene “make advanced molecular diagnostics more accessible to the [Africa] region while creating hundreds of skilled jobs in molecular biology and bioinformatics.”

Establishing the genome sequencing lab with Illumina's high-density microarray technology platforms was an achievement for 54gene to find groundbreaking knowledge regarding the genetic makeup of the African population. The two companies proceeded to raise funds together once in 2019 during the seed round and then a year later during series A held in April.

Paula Dowdy, SVP and General Manager, EMEA, Illumina said “Through partnerships such as this with 54gene, we aim to remove barriers of access to sequencing and expand the benefits of genomics to as many people as possible.”

54gene Founder and CEO Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong. “This is part of our wider commitment to building capacity and infrastructure in Africa which will allow us to significantly expand genomics research while also improving health outcomes on the continent.”

$44.5 Million and 3 Funding Rounds

Since its establishment, the ambitious Nigerian startup has raise funds thrice with support from partners and venture capital investors alike. When it was barely a six-month-old startup, 54gene 54gene announced going for a seed round in July 2019. According to Forbes, it become one of the few healthcare startups that raised the largest amount of funding.

The majority of the raised funds are being used for hiring and training expert talents from different parts of the world. Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong has also mentioned that he aims to maximize the total Biobank capacity to 5x its current values. The company’s benchmark valuation is approximately $200 million as of 20th September 2021. Its post-money valuation after the series B funding is also $200 million whereas the last valuation was just under $175 million. 

Oddup ran expert algorithmic background research to measure the capability and capacity of 54gene to see how it would perform in its relevant industry bearing in mind several factors. The Oddup score thus calculated came out as 65.81. Following are the details of 54gene’s all past funding rounds. 

Seed - $4.5 Million

For the seed round of 54gene, a majority of international investors recorded their participation and support. 54gene raised a total of $4.5 million in a seed round from 11 different investors like Fifty Years, Y Combinator, Better Ventures, KdT Ventures, Techammer, and Hack VC. 

Series A - $15 Million

In the year 2020, 54gene announced a Series A funding round that raised approximately $15 million from a total of 10 investors. Series A was led by Adjuvant Capital that helped 54gene to boost its lab capabilities and manage more than 200,000 samples in its Biobank. At that time, the company sought a new vice president of finance and hiring new scientists. Jenny Yip, the managing partner of Adjuvant Capital, backed by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, confirmed that 54gene also received a follow-on funding from the Silicon Valley accelerator, Y Combinator. During this time, 54gene conducted research to recruit voluntary participants who donated genetic samples by consent.

Series B - $25 Million

This year 54gene announced and closed its series B funding round which was led by Cathay Innovation Fund, a Pan-African VC. Some of the lead investors like Plexo Capital, KdT Ventures, Endeavor Catalyst from the previous funding round also re-invested in 54gene during this round. This time around, the African genomics startup hired some new talents who bring several years of experience working for companies like Leica Biosystems, Regeneron Genetic Center, Novartis, etc.

What’s next for 54gene?

Helping the next phase of growth of 54gene is Jessica Rich, the chief commercial officer who has 7 years of experience working at Illumina. 54gene team also includes Genentech’s veteran executive Delali Attipoe who remained as the head of market access in Roche’s East Africa before handling the reigns of 54gene’s chief operating officer. 54gene CEO is planning to expand the team by hiring across the organization. According to the CEO, the company is preparing to expand to countries within the East and West African regions in the next year.

The total amount raised through funding will aid 54gene to plug the gap noticeable in the global genomics market where African genetic data is hard to find. The company is making sure that African genomes and genetic data do not get lost among the other analyzed genomes coming from every single corner of the world.

“When you are a service provider to big pharma, you can’t really make such a request. But when you are a development partner you co-own a significant stake of what’s being developed and have more of a say,” said Ene-Obong.

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