The democratization of Genetic Sequencing with Tan Rasab of SiGENEX
This is the story of Tan Rasab, the co-founder of SiGENEX, whose mission is to enable genetic testing at point of need at a price point reasonable to the common man. Read this inspirational interview to hear about the exciting innovations being made in genetic sequencing and what it may mean for hospitals, clinicians, patients, and society!
How did the idea for SiGenex originate?
His partner was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. They took a sample from the tumor and it took six weeks to get back. This frustration led him to start researching tumor sequencing and cancer genetics.
He became very curious about the process of cancer genetics. In his research he came across Illumina, a company that provides genetic sequencing. He visited a lab and learned:
They wait for sufficient samples to build up before they start the process. By the time the put the sample in the sequencer, the cost is expensive. It’s easier for them to do multiple samples in one batch than do individual samples in demand. That is because the sequencing cost is very high. It can be as much as $10,000 per run. Let’s say a lab needs 200 samples and you’re number four, you have to wait 196 more samples before it runs. That could take as much as three months in some cases.
Different processes were done in different areas. One process would finish and the sample was taken to the next room.
The panel test, when they look at a select number of genes rather than a whole genome, could be done in as much as 17-26 hours. It is the pre-sample preparation that takes time, and the post-sequencing analysis can take time.
In the US, payors will typically not pay for genetic testing or sequencing unless there are previous cases in the family. Approval can take weeks.
This was the genesis of the idea about reform of genetic sequencing that started to germinate in Tan’s mind.
Making genetic sequencing more affordable
Tan began to wonder if you could have a smaller sequencer with a smaller number of minimum samples, without incurring a penalty. He wondered if it was possible to build something smaller than would automate the manual work. Illumina does have a smaller sequencer that could test a particular set of genes, as opposed to whole genome sequencing. This would enable clinicians to start therapy earlier, before the cancer starts showing up.
Take the genetic testing for breast cancer, BRAC1 and BRAC2. In many countries, that particular test costs $2,000. By automating the process, the cost can be reduced to about $150. That was the information Tan needed to decided that this was something he wanted to do.
Why genetic sequencing needs reform
There are two major reasons why genetic sequencing is in need of improvement:
Only 20 countries in the world have any type of genomics infrastructure. Many countries send samples abroad which has become a national security concern.
Many clinicians start the therapy based on their intuition and guesswork even before the results have arrived. Often some of them are toxic and create further mutations. If a clinicians got the information within a day, they could apply different therapy from the beginning.
Sequencing as a service: the concept is born
He began doing analysis of hospitals around the world. In the US there are about 3,500 community hospitals that have enough patients that could justify having their own mini-sequencing lab onsite. They could actually do the tests onsite, save the payors money, get the results faster, retain the control of the samples, and retain the data.
He determined that if they were to provide the box, the kits, and the analysis, and the equipment to the hospitals onsite, it would be at a ten times lower price than what they are paying now. They would need one person to collect the sample, insert the cartridge, load the samples, and press the button.
They would not have to build their own lab, buy their own equipment, or hire a highly trained, expensive professional.
Navigating venture funding as a startup
Having run two startups before, Tan provides this advice to founders. Buy cheap chairs for $50 from IKEA. Manage your financial resources as if it is your last dollar - because you never know when the next round of funding is coming!
Democratization of healthcare for the good of society
There is a financial benefit to having good healthcare, for all in society. Innovation that has come out of the smartphones, the sensors, the wearable, AI, image analysis, means that many of the processes that used to be carried out in big hospitals will now be able to be carried out at home or at a local clinic near you.
Innovations in areas such as genetic sequencing can permeate throughout the world, as researchers create products and services that we can not even envision yet. That is the true legacy of what innovation can do in elevating the quality of life in society.
About Tim Dougherty
Tim is an investment advisor representative in Atlanta, GA and the host of the Life Science and Biotech CEO stories podcast. He has been an active investor in the life sciences since the mid-1990’s. His interest originated with research coverage of a private equity investment of Cambridge, MA based Ariad Pharmaceuticals (acquired in 2017 by Takeda for $5.2 billion), while working at a small family office/hedge fund, during that period.
His enthusiasm grew in the years since the financial crisis, as easy monetary policy provided ample liquidity to fund biotechnology research at exactly the time when digital advances would accelerate the pace and efficacy of that research.
About Tan Rasab
Tan Rasab is the CEO & Co-Founder at SiGenex. He is the two time founder of previous startups and in between have worked with other startups, multinationals and public sector organizations in technology, health, energy and strategy consulting in three continents.
SiGenex is an inaugural member of the Wyss Institutes Diagnostic Accelerator Industry Participants Programme (IPP); Tan is the chair of the POC and Genetics subcommittee of the IPP. Tan was the Co-founder and CEO SenseHere Technology. The IOT company targeted comms needs of smart buildings and smart grids. He is also the founder and CEO of Wcities; which celebrated its 20th anniversary in September 2019. Tan is a member of the MIT Technology Review Global Panel, a community of business professionals.
The information contained in this website and podcast are purely informational and not considered investment recommendations. Tim Dougherty’s participation in Biotech Insights is separate and apart from his role as an investment advisor representative. Nothing contained herein may be construed as a recommendation or endorsement of any of the companies discussed. Tim Dougherty has no financial affiliation with any of the companies mentioned in this communication. Tim Dougherty makes no representation that the information conveyed in this material is accurate and is under no obligation to update this information as changes occur.