Genomics help decode the key to wellness, one DNA strand at a time

The twin brains behind Xcode Life Sciences, an international genomics company, based out of Chennai, refer to their start-up as a pioneer in consumer genomics, specialising in personalised preventative healthcare. Their business model involves individuals from India and overseas opting for DNA tests from Xcode, unlocking their genetic code, and possibly the gateway to a healthier life.
Genomics help decode the key to wellness, one DNA strand at a time
Dr Abdur Rub, CTO and Saleem Mohammed, CEO of Xcode Life Sciences

Chennai

In an interview, the duo talks about the market for consumer genomics and the role of big data analytics.
Saleem Mohammed is the CEO and Founder while Dr Abdur Rub, is the CTO and Co-Founder of Xcode Life. Their spartan office in the CBD in Nungambakkam sports a framed picture of a genetic strand and the title of the song by Ronan Keating, Life is a Roller-Coaster. 
Describing the thrill ride, Abdur says, “The two of us are from Chennai and we studied in the same college. We went to the US where I did my PhD in biomedical systems and I come from the hardware line. I build machines for in-vitro diagnostics, medical technology and genetic sequencing. Saleem had done his PhD on bioinformatics, which is the software side of the business. I have a few patents in my name and I have worked in the US and Singapore for a few years. In 2011, we decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge and Xcode was founded.”
The company was initially bootstrapped and incubated, following which the duo found some investors. Narrowing down the business idea was a hurdle as Saleem says, “For a product concept that is so new that no one knew about it – we faced a trifecta of challenges. We looked at some of the international offerings at that time. Today, the largest segment in genetic products is ancestry testing. In the West, there are companies like 23andMe, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA which take DNA samples from customers and provide them with an ancestry reading – for example: 50 pc European, 20 pc South Asian and 20 pc African. Essentially, it’s the journey that your genes have undertaken.”
Giving us an overview of the market size, Abdur says the global volumes account for as much as 4 million tests sold annually for ancestry alone, distributed among 4-5 major companies. “We realised early on that such a product would not really take off in India. Mostly in the West, there is a population of immigrants, and there’s a need to know where one’s roots are. The next avenue for us was risk assessment for diseases, which was also side-lined. The reason was that people did not really want to know about such pre-existing conditions particularly when they couldn’t do anything about it, for instance Alzheimer’s. It just makes them more anxious and we figured that value proposition was sticky.”
He adds, “We then decided we could focus on consumer genetics on the preventive healthcare side and offer information that could empower the users. Genomics impacts every aspect of your life, from beauty to wellness and ailments. Today, we live a sort of blindfolded life, assuming we are all the same and that diets and treatments work the same. As per WHO, 80 pc of all diseases today are metabolic diseases, i.e. lifestyle driven, that can be controlled by diet and lifestyle changes. And 95 pc of all Type 2 diabetes is preventable; and that 95 pc cases of diabetes is Type 2 diabetes. It’s a discretionary disease, that you can choose to have or not. As per CDC, 70 per cent of all healthcare spending today goes towards preventable conditions. So, we thought how could genetics inform an individual with information that could help him or her lead a better life?”
Today, the company concentrates on nutrition and offers its services to business partners including physicians, dietitians, nutritionists, gym chains, clinic chains. Abdur says, “Customers from all around the world can log onto our portal and place the mail order. We ship a box to you, in which you can deposit your saliva. We do a reverse pickup and it takes four weeks to send the samples to the lab and do the data analysis and get the report back to the customer. A big chunk of our customers is from abroad, people who have already undertaken ancestry testing, and the companies have provided them with a raw data on their fitness, nutrition and allergies. They send us these reports and we can make sense of the same. We launched our international operations about five months ago. We see increasing volumes of clients bringing genetic data to us from different companies. We do clinical studies with physicians as well. Apart from nutrition, the other area where we see a huge impact is precision medicine.”
Talking about the way forward, Saleem says, “When we set up the firm, it was to serve a global customer base. We set up our operations here because we find the same promise in genomics can be delivered here the way IT became a mainstay of the industry here. The cost of doing business is low here and access to talent is high owing to Chennai’s reputation as a university hub. Our customer base includes self-informed individuals who are curious about their bodies. And we have close to 500 new customers per month globally. Our idea is to grow the market through the consumer segment. Gene editing is something we will be looking at in the next three years.  We are looking at becoming a $100 mn company in the next three years.

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