Genetics expert, Abasi Ene-Obong, is helping to include Africa in the global pharmaceutical and diagnostic space. Although the health tech sector is one that is not so glamorous or popular when compared with other subsets of the tech ecosystem, such as fintech. It is nevertheless an important sector that requires more innovative solutions to handle the myriad of problems faced in Africa, especially by low-income earners.
Innovations seeking to advance and improve the quality of healthcare service delivery, especially across the African continent, need all of the support they can get.
One individual that is doing something in this regard is Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong, founder and Chief Executive Officer of 54gene, a health technology company currently advancing the state of healthcare through research into advanced molecular diagnostics.
Abasi, who holds a PhD in Cancer Biology from the University of London, a Masters in Human Molecular Genetics from Imperial College London, as well as a Master’s in Business Management from Claremont Colleges, California, is spearheading innovative scientific research across multiple geographic regions in Africa through 54gene, a company which he founded in 2019.
His work experience spans several health institutions across the US, UK, and Nigerian healthcare industries. This includes several Fortune 100 pharmaceutical companies and academic and research organisations.
These include his time as a life science and healthcare management consultant for IMS Health (now IQVIA) and PwC in the US, where he worked on projects for some of the top 20 BioPharma companies. He has worked as a cancer researcher and has published a seminal paper on pancreatic cancer immunology in the Gastroenterology Journal.
Expanding the frontiers of healthcare research with 54gene
Through his company, Abasi is helping to use insights from studies conducted among study groups across the African continent and the global community to provide solutions that will help ensure that Africa is adequately represented in the areas of drug discovery and clinical research.
Speaking on the prospects and peculiar challenges that are present within the African region, in terms of healthcare discovery, he notes that each environment has its own unique set of challenges and opportunities, nationally, regionally, and even globally. He reveals that across all borders, one of the major obstacles and an opportunity at the same time is the disparities found in healthcare.
According to him, “Disparities in healthcare are propagated where there is a lack of funding innovation into healthcare. Wealthy regions of the world have developed their healthcare environments significantly more than poorer regions; and even within some regions—wealthy or not—funding for healthcare infrastructure, let alone innovation, is disproportionally distributed and/or mismanaged. This has become the status quo for how our healthcare environments have developed, but this is now unsustainable in today’s globalised world, where an event in one part of the world can shut down all systems across the globe.
As such, the only sustainable model for healthcare innovation is one that looks equally at the rich and poor regions, regardless of ethnic or cultural lines.
“This also means healthcare must become more collaborative,” he says. Adding that, “My only fear is history repeating itself, where the strong “prey” on the weak. Today’s generation of leaders must seek to do things differently, particularly in the healthcare space, to ensure there is a win-win mindset as an acceleration of technology and funding creates more value.”
Describing what inspired his work in this sector, Dr Ene-Obong says, “I remember learning about how our understanding of genetics could lead to finding cures to rare diseases, Hungtington’s in particular, and I immediately wanted to pursue a career in the life sciences so that I could be one of those that would find new cures for these diseases. This was in 2001/ 2002.
Continuing, he says, “About a little more than a decade after that first event, when I was completing my PhD, it occurred to me that the best platform for me to do this would be to set up a company instead of continuing in academia.”
“This led to my moving from London, England, to California to get a business degree and work as a management consultant. For me, management consulting in the life science space was the way to get decades’ worth of experience within a few years,” he concluded.
Recognition for his work
Abasi was recently listed as one of the top 30 entrepreneurs shaping the modern tech ecosystem by Jeune Afrique – a leading French-Language Pan-African magazine.
His company made the Fast Company list of the world’s “Most Innovative Companies” in 2020. It was awarded the best health technology solution by AppsAfrica, and Abasi was named one of the 30 most innovative entrepreneurs on the African continent in 2019 by Quartz Africa.
That’s not all. Abasi was recorded as a hero in the fight against COVID-19 by ThisDay Newspapers in September 2020 for the role he played in the fight against the spread of the virus at the time. He also made it into Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 most influential people in healthcare for that same year.
At entity level, 54gene also made the Time Magazine 2020 list of 12 innovations projected to change the healthcare industry in the 2020s. It was also listed by Punch Nigeria as one of the five innovations to improve healthcare for Africans.