Nigerian e-health startup 54gene closes $4.5m seed round

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Nigerian e-health and genomics startup 54gene has raised a US$4.5 million seed round to allow it to build the first African DNA biobank.

Just six months old, 54gene is a product of Stack Dx, which raised funding from early-stage VC firm Microtraction to develop the platform in January. Since then it has been selected to take part in the Y Combinator and Google Launchpad Africa accelerator programmes, and it has now raised a sizeable seed round.

The US$4.5 million investment comes from Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Better Ventures, KdT Ventures, Hack VC and Techammer, among others, and will be used to allow 54gene to pioneer and build the world’s first African DNA biobank, install electronic data capture systems in the leading tertiary hospitals in Nigeria, and expand its teams in Nigeria and the United States (US). It also has expansion plans elsewhere in Africa.

54gene is now positioned to build the largest database of genomic and phenotypic consented data of Africans. The unique data sets will be used exclusively for research; to proactively address the significant gap the genomics market currently poses for Africa, using African DNA to focus on drug discovery opportunities that will improve access. 

Following a successful pilot in three of Nigeria’s largest academic tertiary hospitals, the startup is strategically expanding its biobanking activities to 10 of the country’s academic tertiary hospitals. The biobank’s focus has also expanded from oncology to include cardiology, neurology, endocrinology and sickle cell disease. 54gene expects to secure 40,000 biobank samples by the end of this year and is working closely with research institutions on the continent, pharmaceutical companies, technology partners and healthcare regulators, to achieve this. 

“The genomic revolution has taken place everywhere except for Africa; home to more than one billion people, and the very birthplace of humankind. What many people don’t realise is how genetically diverse Africa is, and that Africans have married within their tribes for thousands of years, which makes our DNA ideal for studying loss-of-function type mutations that can be replicated into new drugs. We believe this will be done through partnering with pharmaceutical industry players to drive groundbreaking research and layering a data science capability on the data being collected,” said Abasi Ene-Obong, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of 54gene.

“This capital infusion allows us to move swiftly. We are delighted to welcome like-minded, highly experienced investors, who will embark on this journey with us, to secure Africa’s pharma future and to impact millions of people’s lives through improved healthcare and drugs provision. We are committed to curating one of the most interesting genomic and phenotypic datasets in the world that will power the development of new drugs that benefit people of all races.”

Seth Bannon, founding partner at Fifty Years, said it was a “dirty secret” that the world’s genomic datasets were overwhelmingly caucasian. 

“By building datasets that are more inclusive, 54Gene will help democratise molecular medicine while unlocking insights that will lead to better therapeutics for everyone,” he said.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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