Y Combinator-Backed Startup Raises $4.5M To Build World’s First Pan-African Biobank

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Written by Peter Pedroncelli
pan-African biobank
African genomics startup 54gene’s Nigerian team with founder Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong in the middle. Photo – 54gene

Nigerian genomics company 54gene has raised $4.5 million to address the lack of African genetic material used in pharmaceutical research.

Africa’s version of popular DNA genetic testing company 23andMe, 54gene plans to use the investment to build the world’s first and largest pan-African biobank, according to a press release.

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Biobanking is the process of collecting samples of bodily fluid or tissue for research to improve our understanding of health and disease, according to Healthtalk.

The core service provided by most commercial genetic tests such as 23andMe is built on the extraction of DNA from a spit sample to determine the ancestry of the person.

Building a pan-African biobank

54gene is different, focusing not on ancestry but on collecting samples for research to improve healthcare for people of African origin and developing treatments for diseases that impact all populations, Weetracker reports.

Genetic data from Africa is still very limited. 54gene aims to detect and identify DNA markers that have been ignored by researchers.

Two percent of genetic material used for pharmaceutical research comes from Africa, while genetic data on Caucasians makes up 90 percent of the data and samples available, according to Techcrunch.

Based in San Francisco, 54gene wants to address the lack of African genetic material in pharmaceutical research by increasing the amount of data in a biobank focused on African DNA, Ventureburn reports.

It is aiming to use the new funding to collect 40,000 African biobank samples by the end of 2019.

Following a successful pilot in three of Nigeria’s largest academic hospitals, 54gene is expanding biobanking activities to 10 more academic hospitals, according to a press release.

54gene was founded in 2019 by Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong, who has a Ph.D. in cancer biology from the University of London, according to LinkedIn.

He also has a masters in business administration from Claremont College in California and a master’s in human molecular genetics from the Imperial College of London.

54gene’s $4.5 million seed round was raised with participation from Silicon Valley-based Y Combinator, one of the world’s most powerful startup accelerator programs, Fifty Years, an early stage venture capital firm based in San Francisco and Better Ventures, a tech-focused VC fund operating from Oakland, California.

Other investors that participated included KdT Ventures, an early-stage science venture investment firm in North Carolina, Hack VC, an early-stage VC firm in San Francisco, and Techammer, a New York-based angel investment firm belonging to investors Jeff Hammerbacher and Halle Tecco.

54gene was one of seven Africa-focused startups among 189 companies that participated in Y Combinator’s winter 2019 demo day on March 18 and 19, according to Techcrunch.