Sequencing the human genome, as well as that of various viruses, bacteria, and other lifeforms, has had an enormous impact on our lives. It’s allowed us to create new medicines, to improve the foods we eat, and to inform us about our own genetic history. One of the world’s most prolific geneticists involved in these efforts over the past two decades isn’t satisfied, however. Dr. Jun Wang sees potential for much more. His dream is to combine genomics with data science to elevate healthcare to an entirely different level.
Wang founded iCarbonX in 2015 to combine big data with genetics to develop artificial intelligence that will allow us to optimise the health and quality of life of the individual. Since its founding, the company has attracted over $600 million in investments, and is currently valued at over $1 billion, making it one of only 3 unicorn startups in China.
Wang is no stranger to high-profile projects. In 1999, he co-founded the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) to join Human Genome Project as China’s representative, and led it as CEO until 2015. The project was completed in 2003, with BGI sequencing approximately 1 per cent of the genome. Since then, BGI has become the world’s largest genetics research center, conducting research into cancer and other diseases, as well as viruses and bacteria. Besides this, they’ve also sequenced the genomes of a wide variety of plants, specifically food crops, and animals, including the giant panda, silkworms, and honey bees.
BGI has applied this data over the past decades to provide commercial science, health, agricultural, and informatics services to pharmaceutical companies. Wang, however, saw greater opportunities in his findings. Genes are expressed differently depending on how a person eats or behaves, and on what kinds of environmental factors they are exposed to. In order to create truly personalised medicine, more than just genes need to be taken into account.
Combining big data and genetics
According to Wang, the idea of creating digital models of people came from his experience as a student, where he created a digital model of a ladybug that could predict its behaviour. This preceded his scientific career, but would later inform his attitude about the potential applications of genetic data.
By combining information about our genetics with detailed data about our environment and our lifestyle, healthcare to create a “digital me”, healthcare could become far more personalised than it is today. More importantly, data from many individuals could be analysed to create a larger “internet of life”, or a “digital we”. With this, it would become possible to statistically predict the health outcomes of various lifestyle choices for individuals in advance based on their genes. Moreover, it would become possible to understand exactly why a particular individual was experiencing a health problem, and what specific treatments or lifestyle changes would help.
The problem with this was the sheer amount of data mining and analysis involved. A “digital me” would need to know much more than just a person’s genome. It would also need data about the proteins, genes, metabolites, and antibodies in and on the individual, as well as information about their diet, lifestyle, and environment. Then, all of these data points would need to be analysed to create a greater, marvellously complex picture of the individual.
Turning an idea into a unicorn
The idea of cost-effectively collecting and analysing the vast amount and variety of data needed to produce an accurate “digital me” was unrealistic just a decade ago. However, citing the dramatic reduction in the cost of gene sequencing, Wang claims that the cost of a “digital me” could be brought down to as little as $100 within “3 to 5 years”.
Leaning on the authority of expertise
Claiming that a product will become affordable in the future is not typically an ideal pitch to investors. Wang, however, has been a leading voice in genomics for decades, and has the personal authority to support his ambitious claims. To make iCarbonX a reality, he recruited a network of other AI and health technology companies into his “Digital Life Alliance”, drastically increasing the resources and expertise available to advance the project.
The result has been overwhelming optimism. In total, the project has received $1 billion in investments, and received a great deal of international attention. In 2017, the company began providing immune profiling in China, Singapore, and Taiwan. A year later, they partnered with DaChan Food to begin providing personalised precision nutrition to customers.
What we can learn
Looking at Wang’s path to success, we can see that he built on his prior authority as a leading scientist in his field to expand into other industries, namely information technology and artificial intelligence. This allowed him to gain the support of other experts in those fields, making what would otherwise have been a long shot project into a wildly promising startup.