54Gene is a leading African genomics research, services, and development company that is tackling the need to integrate underrepresented African genomic data. And as Chief Commercial Officer, Jessica Rich, is playing a critical role in the monetization of the African lab’s pioneering medical breakthrough.
Founded in 2019, by Abasi Ene-Obong – a genetics expert, 54Gene has built a biobank of pan-African DNA to provide a reliable source of genetic data on Africans. The facility stores aggregated and de-identified biological samples. The bio-specimen pool at the company is available for academic research and has the potential to be vital to the continent’s drug development, disease detection and quality of life.
Business Elites Africa had a chat with the 54gene’s Chief Commercial Officer, Jessica Rich, on the journey of the company and the future of Africa’s health technology.
BEA: What does 54gene do?
54gene is a health technology company advancing the state of healthcare through large-scale discovery and translational research, advanced molecular diagnostics and clinical programs for the benefit of Africans and the global population.
BEA: What path led to where 54gene is right now?
Jessica Rich: While the African genome is the most genetically diverse in the world, it represents less than 3% of the global genetic database. This means that many of the drugs currently on the market are either ineffective or potentially harmful to Africans due to this gap in research. It also means Africans lack the same access to personalized and precision medicine that is available to the rest of the world. This challenge was seen as an opportunity by the founders of 54gene, to not just ensure the inclusion of the African genome in global scientific research, but also to improve access to healthcare across Africa through research and delivering the tools to make precision medicine a reality.
BEA: What would you say is the greatest strength of 54gene?
Jessica Rich: We believe our core strength is our team: the breadth of talent spans diverse ethnicities, religions and lifestyles across the globe. We play to the strength in our diversity, including a high ratio of women in our senior leadership team.
BEA: How can your company help people?
Jessica Rich: We aim to build genetic data sets that make landmark discoveries a reality, bring clinical programs to the continent, and make advanced precision diagnostics accessible. Africans house the most genetically diverse DNA in comparison to all other world populations combined, and insights from the African genome has the potential to power medical breakthroughs and discoveries that will change the entire landscape of healthcare, globally.
BEA: How does your company plan to increase its data sets by the end of 2020
Jessica Rich: We plan on building diverse datasets. We will include datasets which represent the very diverse populations in Africa, including those who live with a disease and those who do not. Having a broad representation of aggregate data will be very important to ensure the appropriate data is available to inform researchers and provide the best possible healthcare in the future.
BEA: What are the benefits of a bio-bank for Africa?
Jessica Rich: While genomic biobank research has grown in recent years, current regulation on research in Africa can be restrictive, and for a good reason. This is because, previously, research in Africa tended to involve the extraction of samples from local populations for use in research overseas, with little benefit to Africans – so-called parachute research. Maintaining biobanks on the African continent is one way to guard against these exploitative practices. Additionally, 54gene is committed to building infrastructure on the African continent to support research.
BEA: Where is Africa with tech/data-driven health care?
Jessica Rich: There are a growing number of innovative companies across Africa using technology and data to improve healthcare delivery across the continent. This is great for the continent as some of the best thinkers put their minds together to ramp up the quality of life for Africans through access to better healthcare systems.
BEA: In the efforts to improve the global pharmaceutical industry, does your company form strategic partnerships with health tech companies, Startups, SMEs, or any other bodies?
Jessica Rich: It is essential to work with healthcare delivery partners and collaborate with key stakeholders in the African research community in order to advance healthcare delivery on the continent. We worked with a number of different partners to support the government’s drive to contain the spread of COVID-19 infection across Nigeria as well as other private companies who all had the common goal of doing as much as possible to minimise the risk to the population. 54gene aims to advance research in Africa by partnering with African researchers and research institutions and also generating novel insights which would result in high-impact findings from targeted research.
BEA: Do you see a future where health tech companies collaborate more with each other?
Jessica Rich: Partnerships are essential. Many health technology companies collaborate to leverage each other’s unique areas of expertise. The health technology community, in general, has the goal of improving lives through better health outcomes. We gain insight and become stronger through collaborations.
BEA: How do you see Africa’s health tech industry evolving over the medium to long-term?
Jessica Rich: I see Africa has the opportunity to leapfrog over many health technologies currently used in the western world and could evolve quickly to have the best care and precision medicine available. I see health technology as a new and emerging industry in Africa. Many people leave for education in health sciences, but there are very few jobs in this field when they return to Africa. 54gene focuses on job creation and infrastructure building. We want to support the emerging health technology industry.
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