Just as plummeting costs for data processing, storage and transmission drove the information technology revolution over the past 50 years, the plunging cost of sequencing genomes has been boosting biotechnology since the turn of the millennium. The United States’ National Human Genome Research Institute said the cost of sequencing a human genome had dived from US$100 million in 2000 to just $1,000 15 years later.
Biotech, which brings massive benefits in disease prevention and treatment, is attracting keen interest as health authorities around the world seek rapid, low-cost tests, vaccines and treatments for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Capitalising on this trend, Hong Kong biotech firm Prenetics Group, recently formed a joint venture with Berry Genomics, a major clinical genomics provider in Mainland China, to tap the huge consumer genetics testing market in the mainland.
Prenetics, which provides personalised health advice based on the customer’s genetic profile, has offices in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and in the Philippines.
Since its establishment in 2014, CircleDNA – which launched the Prenetics brand in 2019 – has raised more than US$50 million from investors including the mainland’s Ping An and Alibaba.
CircleDNA specialises in personalised services based on genetic characteristics revealed in DNA tests and last year developed COVID-19 testing kits.
Hong Kong entrepreneur Danny Yeung, CircleDNA co-founder and CEO of both companies, shares his experience and the group’s developments with Hong Kong Means Business.
You are a serial entrepreneur, starting by taking a Hong Kong dessert chain to the United States, segueing into hotel furniture, and then e-commerce, then fund-raising for biotech before founding CircleDNA in 2014 – what led you to make these jumps?
I love to challenge myself and learn new things – I’m attracted to unfamiliar areas. Many may see these jumps in business as difficult or risky, but when you’re confident and enthusiastic about challenge, you don’t see it as something difficult, but you see the opportunity to create impact, create jobs and to make the world a slightly better place. In 2014, I believe this is my biggest shift to-date as biotech is an immensely different industry and I had to speak to lots of industry experts and also read lots of scientific papers to get up to speed with the industry. Till today, I often spend free time reading up on the latest scientific innovations and then speak to our research and development teams on it. To me, there is no better industry I can be in as we are now making a global impact with our services and products.
The COVID-19 pandemic broke as a Black Swan event for Prenetics. Did this help you fast-track your COVID diagnostic tests?
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Hong Kong, we strongly believed it was our duty to aid the fight against the pandemic and protect our community using our technology and resources, and that was the start of our COVID diagnostic tests. We never intended to be in the COVID testing space but did it to help the community.
We are working tirelessly with various public and private institutions, companies and people to fight COVID-19 in Hong Kong and the world. This includes the Hong Kong government, English Premier League, Walt Disney, Hong Kong International Airport, London Heathrow Airport and more. To date, we have processed more than three million COVID-19 tests and have identified thousands of positive cases so they can be isolated away from the community.
Recently, we have signed a multi-million dollar collaboration with Oxford University to create a Prenetics Innovation Technology Centre for Advanced Molecular Diagnostics inside Oxford University. We hope that this can further help the global community with rapid, portable, accurate results for the detection of COVID-19.
CircleDNA’s business is very much about personalised medicine, which refers to treatments and preventive measures crafted for individuals in light of their respective genetic features. How popular is this in Asia?
With the pandemic, interest in personalised medicine and preventive treatments has taken off in Asia. Previously, we focused more on a solutions-oriented approach, meaning that we focused on treating health problems after knowing that we have them. However, COVID-19 has taught us the importance of supporting our body’s individual structure and preventing problems before we are impacted by them. Asia’s healthcare industry is acknowledging the importance of personalised, predictive, and preventive measures. This is why CircleDNA aims to enable people to make health a choice, by living healthier and proactively preventing diseases.
CircleDNA also addresses wellness issues, such as crafting diets appropriate for people based on their genetic profile. Have you received any feedback from customers?
Based on the more than 1,400 responses from customers responding from January to February 2020, over 72% of customers made a healthier diet or made lifestyle changes. [CircleDNA services] can help you lose weight, train better, and eat smarter, eliminating all the guesswork that stops you from reaching your weight loss or fitness goals. Research shows that variations in certain genes can have a significant effect on the way our body responds to the food we consume. CircleDNA helps to optimise your health by building your personal plate based on how your body handles food groups like carbohydrates, fats, dairy and more. By discovering your unique nutrigenetic profile, with our in-depth, personalised diet and nutrition reports, you can find your optimal diet type and maintain a healthy lifestyle and achieve physical goals.
The company has also developed exercise plans based on genes. Is this proving popular?
Like genes, every person’s body is different. This is why some exercise plans are effective for some people but ineffective for others. Developing personalised exercise plans based on genes is important and popular as it helps you become your best self while keeping aware of any genetic weaknesses or concerns. Combining DNA and fitness helps you achieve your goals and witness clear results, truly making your fitness journey about you.
CircleDNA’s client success stories take a leaf out of the social-media book for promotion. Will you expand on this in future?
Yes – CircleDNA believes that our success partially comes from our success stories. These success stories help our customers build trust with us. The extensive science and technology involved in our process is important, but we understand that customers also want to hear results. Our success stories effectively channel and prove our innovations in DNA and mobile technology. Furthermore, sharing success stories helps create a community where our customers can share their health-improvement journey and encourage them to lead a better and healthier lifestyle.
What’s next for CircleDNA and Prenetics?
Hong Kong is our home and we want to showcase to the world that a local Hong Kong company can be a leading global company. We started back in 2014 with 10 employees and today have more than 450 employees globally. The future is bright and we are just getting started. Stay tuned for some exciting news!