Please describe the story behind the company: What sparked the idea, and how has it evolved so far?
The Gene Box is a B2B genetic testing SaaS platform that licenses and providers genomic analytics, reports, and recommendations to other genetic testing companies.
Our tests cover almost 400 types of traits, from wellness components like nutrition and fitness to health concerns such as neurological diseases, cardiology, Type II Diabetes complications, and chronic pain conditions. In women’s health, we offer to analyze hormonal health and key aspects of IVF & pregnancy loss. In men’s health, we study their sexual well-being as well.
We have two lines of products in DNA testing and gut microbiome analysis. Typically, our partners are B2C nutrition and fitness testing companies who deal with end-users and healthcare practitioners. They in turn want to provide their consumers with content and personalized recommendations around their reports.
Since the COVID outbreak, we also started another initiative called The Gene Box Academy, a learning platform where we train health coaches on nutrigenomics and fitness genomics asynchronously to improve the health and wellbeing of their clients.
We have 30 different partners for whom we are doing genetic testing. We went B2B in 2017 and got funded in 2018. We have 45 people in our team, out of which 35 are genetic system bioinformaticians.
How definite is the information in your reports?
Some of our reports are deterministic while others are more probable, depending on the trait. For every trait that we find, we show the scope of the trait.
We also differentiate between the clinical and the recreational part of the report. The clinical part gets extremely accurate because there is a process to follow, but that process is only for certain diseases. The recreational side is more about what you can do with your test results. You may have some family history that puts you at a higher risk of a certain disease. That’s where your DNA will point out any health issues in your family. What you decide to do with this information and whether or not you choose to follow our recommendations is completely up to you.
How do you balance between simplicity and depth in your reports?
Luckily for us, we have clients who want both. We’ve customized our platform so you can change the language, text, and format of the report. If your target audience requires oversimplified reports, we can give you those. If your target audience is, for example, health coaches, and you need highly complex, in-depth data, upon which people will make important life decisions, we can cater for that as well.
We lay out the whole complexity of how the reports are generated based on the papers, genes, and pathways that our clients require, and from there, everything is mapped into the process.
Do you collect any user data?
We do collect data for research purposes, but we only do that with the consent of our clients and end-users, depending on the kind of partnership we have with them. With some clients, we function as an outsourced scientific team while for others, we just provide content, so we don’t have any access to their data. Clients that have their own team usually know what types of content they are missing so they buy more content from us. Overall, our relationships are very deeply rooted with our clients and that helps us to answer a lot of other questions and figure out some new ones as well.
What kind of options are available for people who have tested their genomes?
If they’ve tested their entire genome then pharmacogenomics plays a big role, but it would always depend on lifestyle as well. If you’ve done a DNA test for a child and they’ve grown up, then you probably know what kind of muscle fibers they have and what kind of physical activity would keep them healthy, but if they aren’t doing it, they may be facing new, unexpected health issues.
We have solutions where we look at DNA plus gut microbiome and give you more accurate insights into your health so that you can take action on those items.
A lot of people suffer from IBS, IBD, or gluten intolerance and they don’t know what it is until they take a test to confirm it. In that sense, it is great for people who have unidentified problems, but even if you’re super fit and healthy and you’re lucky enough to have all the right genes, you might find that some products or supplements are completely useless to you.
To give you an example, one of our employees at The Gene Box was five feet five and weighed 111 kgs. When we looked at his genetics, we found that he’s a great endurance athlete. He laughed at first, but then he started training and lost 52 kilograms. He’s never run in his life before and today he’s able to do a half marathon in less than 90 minutes. So, just having that knowledge gave him the motivation to do it. It also helped him understand why he was obese. Some people have the wrong genes whereas others are just not eating right and not taking care of their body as well as they should.
There are so many people like him now who have just understood what they need to stay away from and what type of exercise would actually help them to get fit as opposed to trying different methods unsuccessfully.
What kind of insights do you get from combining DNA and microbiome testing?
Unlike DNA data which remains static throughout your lifetime, gut microbiome testing lets you look at what’s happening in your body from a chemistry perspective, so you can see what bacteria are currently active and test pathways versus disease models.
For example, we know that certain microbes are never going to be present in obese people and that certain microbes which are present in diabetics can lead to excess blood sugar levels.
You can match this kind of data with the person’s predisposed risk. For example, if a patient has poor carbohydrate metabolism from a genetics perspective, and they have the wrong kind of microbes in their gut, then diabetes becomes an imminent risk. Of course, I’m oversimplifying this at the moment, but this is where I see things heading in the future.
Diabetes is very poorly understood. People tend to think of it as a single disease, Type II Diabetes, but new research has already identified five subtypes of diabetes, and there are probably more that have yet been discovered. Multiple genes are involved as well, it’s not just one, so I think it’s going to be a lot more nuanced. If you are born with certain genes, and you have certain kinds of microbes, that could probably be a good way to avoid diabetes early on.
Diabetes is a lifestyle disease, but some people are just born with good genes and will never get it. It’s also more age-related than anything else. We aim to help people who get diabetes in their early 20s and 30s and that’s why our focus at The Gene Box is on B2B. We want to have the freedom to look at these problem statements in our own time. It’s not very end-consumer-driven. I don’t have to tell you exactly what’s in your report, I have to worry about how I can improve the report so that when you get it from your healthcare provider, you’ll get a great insight into your health.
Which technologies are you currently excited about?
Believe it or not, some species of bacteria that have not been identified can metabolize gluten even if you are genetically gluten-intolerant. One US startup has engineered microbes that can reduce blood sugar levels. I think engineering probiotics that way is one of the most fascinating areas in biotech right now. These technologies have a lot to do with synthetic bacteria with modified functionality that will improve gut health.
I think it will be a big disruptor. A lot of companies today use smaller panels for clinical use. I don’t think it’s wrong, but sometimes it may not be enough. The decreased cost of next-generation sequencing will be a game-changer because essentially, you only have to test your DNA once to have your entire genome mapped.
Pharmacogenetics will become super exciting. Both Illumina and Thermo Fisher are working on new arrays that solve some of the single gene problems and give you more accurate calls.
I think there’s going to be a lot more technology built around solving genomics data. If previously, we were only looking at 650,000 points, now we’re looking at the whole genome, from microarrays to NGS. So that’s going to be a big game-changer on the therapeutic side as well.