54Gene is one of Nigeria’s most promising Health Tech startups.
Busy as the Founder and Co-founder are, I was felt honoured when I learnt that I would be sitting down with them in an Exclusive Media Chat.
Since publishing the news about the humongous seed round raised by 54Gene, I needed to know what exactly makes Nigeria’s first private Biobank tick.
Even though I could not get both Founder and Co-founder in the same room for this Media Chat, Mr Francis Osifo – 54Genes’ Co-founder and Vice President of Engineering was gracious enough to be in this 30 minutes long chat.
Before you go on to read this beautiful piece, I should say that the 54Gene Facility is top-notch and the serene ambience is a constant reminder of the enormity of work they have decided to take upon themselves.
Read our refreshing chat;
Dr.E – It is a great honour to finally meet you, in person. So who is Francis?
Francis – My name is Ogochukwu Francis Osifo. A lot of people call me Francis Osifo. I am the Co-founder and Vice President of Engineering at 54Gene. The Founder of 54Gene is Dr. Abasi Ene-bong, who has a PhD in Cancer Biology.
Dr.E – 54Gene – Why that name?
Francis: The name 54Gene springs from the fact that we hope to capture the 54 African countries currently in existence.
The Goal for us at 54Gene is essentially to create the first and largest Pan-African Biobank.
This is coming from a perspective whereas of 2018 only 2% of available genetic research materials is of African origin. We saw a big problem in that because it meant that drug discovery and development would not have the best treatment with Africans in mind. Being able to create an infrastructure meant that we can help new development efforts as well as better treatment for diagnoses made.
Dr.E – Can you give us a run-through of what your educational and professional life is like?
Francis – I have a B.Sc in Computer Science from the National Open University. I have been doing software development for 10 – 12years. Gladly, I ran my own tech engineering firm before I built products that are used by Visa Card. My experience also expands to some products I handled for Microsoft and DFID – for their health hackathon held in Nigeria.
Also, I worked for Private Health Alliance in Nigeria, where I also built products around their health Hackathon while I worked out of Yaba.
During my stint with Microsoft, I did some implementation works around digital literacy – to improve access to technology across universities. I was Project Implementation Lead across six universities in the country.
Right before joining 54Gene, I was also Lead at a World Bank project called Start-Up South West. The Goal of Start-Up South West was to help start-ups across the South West region of Nigeria, in terms of mentoring, technical training, the business train I g and basically getting them to a point where they can get access to funding.
Dr.E – You must have had a full plate before joining 54Gene? So over the years you have gathered so much experience in the tech space, but let me as you – Why did you stick to Health Tech? Considering that there are much more robust, attractive and lucrative tech sub-space; How did you settle for the health tech niche?
Francis – I think Abasi first – He is very convincing especially when he believes in something. So he came around saying ‘This is what I am trying to build”. I thought it was bold and huge.
Now there comes a point in your life where making money may not be your sole drive when getting into something new. It becomes about trying to be part of something big that is capable of changing a narrative. I remember thinking that I would want to be with a company that solves major problems so that one day my kids can also be proud to say “My dad was part of that”.
I wanted to be to join a company that will be contributing significantly to humanity and that would leave a lasting legacy. A lot of people think about building products for the sake of it. But building a product that will have a critical impact on people’s lives – that made a tonne of sense for me.
So when Abasi asked me to join him on his team, I totally jumped in.
Dr.E – Take us to the Origin of Origins for 54Gene.
Francis – You know how people say companies evolve in a lot of things? The same for 54Gene.
We started initially as DiagnoseMe. Diagnose Me is a product that allows people to basically order medical tests. We connected them to centres around where samples would be collected and result gotten, all on the DiagnoseMe platform. This was running smoothly.
However, as we started engaging with people, we realised there is a much bigger problem.
You see at DiagnoseMe we were offering superb convenience, privacy and cheaper prices – as we could negotiate some price points that are passed on to clients. But the feedback indicated there was a stronger, bigger problem. That was when we decided that going forward this was what we needed to build – infrastructure wise and all.
So we realised this is what we want to do based on stronger demand. At that point, it was kind of easy to just make that switch. We have already started transitioning from trying to provide that initial service to focusing more around research and building our entire biobank.
Dr.E – Biobanking is not yet a common concept in Nigeria, although a few years ago, the Lagos state government their own biobank. Can you explain what Biobank really mean?
Francis – The whole idea of the biobank is a collection of biological sample – human DNA samples, tissue samples, that is stored in a physical location. These samples are available for research.
What we have done is that starting off with a pilot earlier in the year. This was done in 3 hospitals. Working with doctors as key partners we have been able to focus on Oncology.
At the same time, we wanted to scale up this endeavour, so the goal is to build and increase the capacity of our Biobank to 40,000 biological samples. Still working with hospitals within Lagos and across the country (especially high patient volume and tertiary hospitals), we are to ensure that everybody who joins the study, joins voluntarily.
They must understand the purpose of the study – The 54Gene Heritage Stage – which is to understand our heritage.
In the scheme of things, it is generally believed that everybody (including civilizations) can trace its roots back to Africa. This means that Africa is the ‘source’. To understand the human genome, you have to understand it from the ‘source’. So our goal is to understand our genome as Africans.
Recall that there are some conditions that primarily affect people of African origin and researches in other climes are not inclined to find solutions for these conditions. This is what we want to change.
Dr.E – Is 54Gene going to be the first private biobank in Nigeria?
Francis – We are the first private Biobank in Nigeria and the first Pan-African Biobank. Remember that our task is to ensure diversity in the samples to be collected.
Nigeria’s samples will most likely make up 40% of samples collected while a host of diverse African communities and countries will be banked.
Dr.E – I observe that 54Gene have interest in Oncology research, how about some other fields with commoner disease conditions like Sickle Cell Disease. What are your plans in this regard?
Francis – In this new study, we are working on sickle cell, metabolic disorders, neurodegenerative disorders. There are currently about 5 or 6 disease groups we are focused on, in terms of the next phase of the project.
As we have more resources and build more capacity, we would expand the disease areas.
Dr.E – What is your experience like working with government hospitals, since a major pool of patients is in teaching hospitals – secondary and tertiary hospitals alike.
Francis – It has been amazing. What I realised is that in life you cannot do anything meaningful alone. So it is about understanding what the requirements are from ethics, from medical professionals. Then working closely with these partners for proper alignment.
We are also looking to expand to more hospitals as we nurture relationships that help us figure out the proper alignment in hospitals as we progress.
Dr.E – Can you mention a few of the hospitals 54Gene is working with?
Francis – Currently we are working with LUTH, UCH, UDUTH, LASUTH. A detailed list and infographics of these hospitals can be seen on the Biobank Official website.
Dr.E – It was in July when we got news of the seed fund 54Gene secured. Many professionals and industry watchers have been shocked by the funds; others are in denial that it can not happen in the sector. So tell us about the seed funding you raised.
Francis – Like you already know research is expensive. All the work that needs to happen for research coordination, materials and resources for data gathering, collection, collation and analysis is pretty expensive.
Then another big factor is that the Founder, Abasi is very experienced, having worked in the healthcare space in the US – on both the medical side and from the side of Pharma companies.
He could see where the challenges were and he understood there is a disconnect that requires alignment. He simply developed a solution to this.
With these two points plus our membership in the Y-Combinator, we got that initial small exposure that was required to move on to subsequent rounds. The investors in those markets understand that healthcare is is expensive. They understood that rolling out critical healthcare infrastructure is expensive.
The amount you are able to raise is indicative of our investors’ trust our capacity – in terms of our team structure, and our vision, the goal for the company.
Dr.E – Now you successfully raised $4.5million. What are the criteria or requirements one must meet to successfully raise any amount of seed funds? People are interested and want to actually want to know how to go about raising funds.
Francis – There is no one size fit all criteria that guarantee success when raising seed funds. I think at the end of the day it is about what the business needs. So you want to show investors that your company requires a particular kind of capital.
As long as that is clear and you can communicate that value to investors who understands and sees the need and worth of their investment, then you are good to go.
Another thing that determines how much money a Founder should go for is how much equity he/she is ready to give up to the investors.
So it is not like If you do it this way or that way it would work. It is about finding out how much funds you really need for the business, being able to convincingly prove the worth of your Business, and for the investor to agree to invest in your Business.
Some people are able to raise all they require in one round, others raise less than needed. It boils down to Value Conversion.
Dr.E – What is the next big thing one should except from 54Gene.
Francis – Our goal is to improve healthcare generally, so in the next couple of months, we would be announcing some partnerships. You have to wait and see.
Dr.E – 54Gene has two main focus which is the flagship Biobank and Research. How are you guys going to make money to keep your investors happy?
Francis – Biobanking and Research are both long term strategic investments. With our research, we would be able to lead innovations into new drug developments for better treatment of people with African origin. There is monetization potential from this alone.
We would also be working with some partners, who are providers already in the ecosystem, by adding value to their processes.
Dr.E – As a young business executive in a very promising start-up, can I get your opinion and advice for young professionals who are inclined to want to get rich quickly?
Francis – Let me start by saying a lot of times when people see or hear that a startup raise seed money, they believe the startup will be celebrating and enjoying. What many don’t see is that this start-up would be working harder to prove the value for which money has been given.
So yes, young people have to be committed to what they do. This entails being the best at their work so that their work will speak for itself. Young people should also know that they have to do things differently to be able to stand out, ensuring that their good works spread out.
Please, they have to love what they do, understand the purpose for which they do their work for full satisfaction to be gotten. If any young person is not feeling satisfied with what they do, let them change to something else. Do what makes you genuinely satisfied. This way you will give it 100%.
Young people should also remember that your competition is now global since we are in a global world. So if you do well, someone from the US, China would want to talk to you, to work with you. They would have to carve out a niche for themselves.
Another thing I noticed about being young is that they are easily influenced by the success of others. They have to understand their pace and work according to that.
Networking – Young people should network and speak to people about what they do. They could get meaningful recommend that may change their lives.
Dr.E – On a final note – How do you relax?
Francis – When I find the time, I like going down to sit at the beach and watch the waves. The scenery calms me while I reflected.
I also like to hang out with friends too.
Dr.E – It is on this cool note that we come to the end of this chat. I want to thanks for your time and for taking out time to discuss with me.
Francis – Thanks for coming too.