Founder Spotlight #33: Abasi Ene-Obong @ 54gene
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Abasi Ene-Obong is Founder & CEO @ 54gene. He is a seasoned business leader with extensive experience in the US, UK, & Nigerian healthcare industries.
Abasi holds a PhD in Cancer Biology from the University of London, a Masters in Human Molecular Genetics from Imperial College London, and a Master’s in Business Management from Claremont Colleges, California. He also worked as a cancer researcher and published a seminal paper on pancreatic cancer immunology in the Gastroenterology Journal. Abasi also worked as a life science/ healthcare management consultant for IMS Health (now IQVIA) and PwC in the US, working on projects for many of the top 20 BioPharma companies.
Among other notable mentions, Dr Ene-Obong has been recognized as one of Africa’s young innovators, one of Fortune’s 40 under 40 most influential people in healthcare, and is a Bloomberg Catalyst in recognition of his contributions towards accelerating solutions to global health problems.
54gene is a health technology company equalizing precision medicine for Africans and the global population through innovative scientific research, advanced molecular diagnostics and clinical studies. The company is leading many genomic studies across multiple geographic regions in Africa. These studies have recruited more than 100,000 participants.
The company is working to translate insights from these studies into solutions for the global community and ensure that Africa, a genetically diverse population, is adequately represented in drug discovery and other clinical research.
54gene has its headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria & Washington DC, USA.
Challenges in inclusion, diversity, and equity in startups and venture capital (VC) are not new. Women led startups received just 2.3% of VC funding in 2020 (source: Harvard Business Review). Black and Latinx founded startups represented 2.4% of VC funding since 2015, despite making up 18.5% of the US population (source: Crunchbase). We see similar data and challenges on the investor side, further perpetuating unequal representation.
The AWS Startups Team works with thousands of healthcare and life sciences startups globally to help them grow and scale their business. We look to accelerate scientific innovation and create business opportunities. We’re excited to showcase 54gene’s inspiring story below…
“Prior to signing up with AWS, we had a gap in finding a reliable cloud provider with the support ecosystem to help us through every stage of our growth.
Enlisting AWS services has enabled us to implement, deploy and manage all our internal and externally facing solutions. It has also increased the company’s efficiencies at a reduced cost.
The AWS technologies in use at 54gene include Amazon FSx, Amazon ECR, Amazon RDS Aurora MySQL, EC2, Route 53, S3, ACM, VPC, IAM, SES, WAF, GuardDuty, Lambda, MSK, Secrets Manager, Security Hub, SQS, SNS, KMS, CloudWatch and CloudTrail.
Recently, we also deployed Amazon Fargate, Cognito and Amplify which are a perfect fit for our business.
With these technologies, we’re able to leverage cutting edge infrastructure to deliver a seamless, scalable and reliable experience for our end-users across all our products. As a highly configurable platform with robust support, there is a solution to every problem.
We are pleased to leverage such infrastructure and technical capabilities as we grow.”
Abasi Ene-Obong — Founder & CEO @ 54gene
What prompted you to pursue a career in Life Sciences? Was there a specific moment in time or influence you can remember? What drives you to work in this space?
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 diseases. This was in 2001/ 2002. About a little more than a decade after that first event, when I was completing my PhD, it occurred that the best platform for me to do this would be to set up a company instead of continuing in academia. This led to me 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.
How did you get your training, if any, to be able to build your company? Life Sciences increasingly has interdisciplinary academic backgrounds, while other founders take the plunge and jump straight off the deep end. Which one are you & why?
I’d say I’m a blend of both. I studied Cancer Biology to PhD level and hold a Masters in Human Molecular Genetics, both from UK universities, as well as a Masters in Business Management from a US university. Before taking the plunge, I thought it wise to get additional work experience. But regardless of training, building a company always feels like taking a plunge into the deep end!
Can you tell us a little bit about your background & career thus far? What were you doing before you started running a high potential venture-backed startup?
I spent too many years in school! Getting 4 degrees back to back and living in multiple continents and cities along the way, from cities in Nigeria such as Nsukka, Calabar and Lagos, to London, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. After my education, I worked for IMS Health and PwC and have consulted for companies including Gilead, Abbvie, Astellas, Takeda, and many more. When I decided to start a global life science company out of Africa, I moved back to Nigeria for a couple of years, during which I consulted for Funders and NGOs, including USAID and Pathfinder International, leading healthcare transformation projects for African governments. I believe all of these came together in a unique combination that allowed me to start 54gene.
What problem is your company solving?
Globally, most genomics research performed to date has been done on non-African genomes, even though African populations have the most diverse genetic makeup of all populations. Less than 3% of genomic data represented in research is from African populations. Our mission is to deliver on the promise of precision medicine for Africans and the global population, by bridging the disparity gap in genomics data. We believe this will manifest itself in new genomic insights, some of which will be translated into new medicines that treat people irrespective of ethnicity.
How did you become motivated to tackle this particular problem?
While concluding my PhD in 2013, I developed an idea to start a healthcare company in Africa, serving the continent and the world. My ambition? A company that would be at par with international healthcare companies of repute. Around the time I was ready to venture out on my own, it was becoming increasingly apparent (e.g. studies such as the 1000 genomes project had just been published) that understanding human genetic variation held a lot of promise in unlocking genomic insights for the benefit of all populations, yet Africa, with the most amount of genetic variation, was grossly underrepresented. I believe my educational, work, and geographic experiences positioned me as one of those who could tackle this particular problem.
Quite simply, what does your company do?
54gene is working to ensure that Africa, a genetically diverse population, is adequately represented in drug discovery and other clinical research.
We are generating and translating insights from our genetic cohorts
Now, in technical language, what are the specifics of what your company does?
As a health technology platform company, we leverage continent-wide and international partnerships to build diverse research cohorts across a wide range of diseases and translate genomic insights into medicines that treat all people.
Why does your solution matter for the world when you get it right?
We hope that it will lead to new and better treatments and diagnostics and help us (both the African/ African-diaspora and global community) understand ourselves as a people, as modern humans all originated from Africa.
What is your company’s founding story?
Towards the end of 2018, I applied to Y Combinator whilst 54gene was still an idea. At the time, I had recently started a “bridge startup”, in the sense that it wasn’t the perfect idea I wanted to pursue, but it had the benefit of not requiring much funding, whereas what would become 54gene would require significant funding. Regardless, I applied to YC using the idea of 54gene. We got into the W2019 batch and started in January of 2019.
We began as a consumer genetics company while piloting another approach to running research studies/ cohort building in large tertiary hospitals. Ultimately, we decided that the research studies approach was ideal for our situation because it allowed us to build more deeply phenotyped cohorts than the consumer approach permitted.
We understood that the journey to our ideal destination was a long one and would require us to build a few capabilities in-house over time. So, we launched as a “biobank” to allow us the time to build additional capabilities such as sequencing and other wet-lab, data science, and translational biology. We have built all these capabilities successfully and are embarking on our next leg to begin translating insights into programs and, hopefully, the clinic.
After recently creating a subsidiary to house our diagnostics business, 54gene currently has under 100 employees across the US, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Senegal and London.
What are some of the notable milestones your company has achieved thus far?
Some of our outstanding achievements include:
Raising over $45M USD in funding since our inception in 2019. In 2021, we raised $25M USD alone which will be deployed to expand our capabilities in sequencing, target identification and validation, and precision medicine clinical trials, enabling drug discovery in Africa for both Africans and the global population. The new capital will also enable the company to begin its expansion across the African continent.
Hiring exceptional talent to drive our strategic priorities. We have made several strategic senior appointments in our organization across Genomics and Data Science, Drug Discovery, Legal, Business Development and Diagnostics. We have also hired several employees across Lagos, Nairobi, Dakar, Cape Town, Washington DC, Boston, London to take our business to the next level.
Recruiting more than 100K research participants and currently generating genomic data with more than 100K genetic datasets expected in 2022
Driving social impact programs to serve the communities in which we operate. 54gene has been at the heart of ramping up COVID-19 PCR testing in Nigeria and supporting the government with COVID-19 variant surveillance. Through our non-profit foundation, the African Centre for Translational Genomics (ACTG Initiative), we offer grants, fellowships and scholarships to genomic scientists. We are also paving the way for the next generation of leaders in healthcare research by enhancing the skill set and technical know-how of young and talented African scientists in Genomics and Molecular Science.
What are some of the biggest hurdles ahead? How do these create points of value inflexion?
Before now, we focused on building sustainable and equitable relationships that allow us to build properly consented research cohorts in Africa and build the in-house capabilities to go from cohort to data and insights. The next hurdle is going from data/ insights to programs and then the clinic. We believe each of these transitions will create an inflection in value.
We have begun that next transition and hope to get to the next value inflection point soon.
Pay It Forward
Throughout the journey, what have been some of your biggest takeaways thus far? What advice/words of wisdom would you share from your story for other founders?
There have been many lessons, but let’s talk about my top three:
On Failing Forward: We call failure a scenario where we don’t get our desired outcome. Having spent a few years in the lab doing experiments, I realize I learnt as much from the failures as from the successes of my experiments.
- My takeaway? When you experience failure, go back to the drawing board and give it another shot. Accept “your failure” and why you failed. Then try again. Trying again is very hard as the fear of failing is debilitating and can almost prevent you from giving it another shot. Remember, success and failure come hand in hand. Embrace that failure or the possibility of failing because that’s where true freedom lies. The freedom to be you and to do your mission on this earth!
On Starting Small: Sometime in September 2019, we hosted our first town hall. All I could think about was that what started as a dream had picked up steam and become a movement in its own right! And after that meeting, there have been many moments on the journey that have taken me back to day one.
- My takeaway: Start small if you must (I did) and don’t give up (I didn’t). Who knows what’s at the other end of the rainbow (even I don’t know). But I’ve decided to do my best, have the best people around me, and enjoy our journey together.
On Building Belief: In 2008/ 2009, one of my teachers in the United Kingdom basically told me I wouldn’t amount to much. I was 23 years old. I would go on to complete my PhD in the UK in just over two years, with a publication in the leading scientific journal of my field at the time. I also became the first in the MSc class she taught to get a PhD. And maybe most importantly, I would go on to found a genomics company (she taught genetics) that is expected to contribute to science significantly over the next few years.
- My takeaway: When I heard those words back then, I felt gut-punched. I may have come from a disadvantaged background and may not have had the opportunities my other classmates did at the time. What I had going for me was belief. It is the same belief that drives me in my current work.
What are some of the must-haves for an early-stage Life Sciences startup in your eyes?
I think this varies, depending on what type of life science startup. But it is often some combination of team, academic papers/ background, or industry know-how Funding is also a very critical component.
For folks coming out of academia, what advice would you share?
I have seen my friends and colleagues take different routes out of academia — some take the immediate plunge into starting their companies, others go to business school, and some work in industry first. I think the important thing is figuring out your long-term goals and putting together a plan that takes into cognizance your unique circumstances. Then follow that plan with enough determination, grit, and flexibility to know when you might need to change course or method.
Not everyone knows everything. Often founders have to learn either the science or the business side better. What advice would you give for someone picking up a new skill set such as this?
You can’t know everything (unless you are very, very gifted), and that is OK! Learn what you can. Some people are generalists — they know enough about many things; others might be more technical in one thing over the other. In either case, one never knows everything. The key here, I believe, is to know what you know and what you don’t know and bring in support to help with what you don’t know.
Can you demystify the process of what it was like to raise VC funding? What were the highlights & low lights? Any advice or words of wisdom for future founders?
Raising funding is like selling. And in selling, the law of averages often applies. In my former life, I worked a sales job while in school, and in that job, the law of averages ratio was that I needed to knock on 100 doors to make one sale. It was grueling. The things that improved my odds of a sale were: having many doors to knock on, having a good product (the product I sold wasn’t that good), and improving my messaging. The same applies to fundraising. You need to have access to the investors who invest (this is why programs like Y Combinator are popular because they can give you that access); you need to have a good product/ solution and tell a compelling story.
What advice for managing and hiring a great team can you share?
On hiring the right team: Naturally, it’s essential to find people with the right skills and capabilities. However, that is only the beginning. Hiring individuals who are passionate about the life sciences, the work we do, and the impact we can make always make the best hires. Such people reflect the DNA of 54gene. A mission-driven company needs a mission-driven team. It is my observation that such people go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure we deliver on our priorities and commitments. It is also important to hire people smarter than you.
On managing the right team: I’ve always made it clear to my team that I don’t know everything. This level of vulnerability creates an environment where I learn from the people I lead.
AWS/Amazon Programs for Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
A small part that the AWS Startups Team plays in driving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the community is creating, deploying, and backing initiatives to level the playing field and increase visibility for underrepresented founders (URFs). Specifically, this means providing mentorship, community, access, and business and technical resources at scale and delivered programmatically. Here, we’d like to highlight a few programs supporting women, Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ entrepreneurs.
AWS Startup Day Women Founders Edition featured topics including how to overcome biases in fundraising, tips on juggling your personal life while building a business, and how to sell your startup to backers who may not identify with the market. Our first AWS Healthcare Accelerator cohort featured 10 startups: 90% had diverse leadership and 70% were female founded. AWS also partnered with StartOut to support LGBTQ entrepreneurs and with Black Ambition, an organization launched by Pharrell Williams to catalyze entrepreneurship by investing in Black and Latinx founders. Lastly, the Amazon Alexa Fund partnered with Blavity’s AfroTech and All Raise to drive inclusiveness and equity for entrepreneurs of color.
This is just the beginning. We know we have a long way to go, but we’re committed to continuing this important work.
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