Alibaba, China’s US$460 billion online shopping giant, has invested in one of Asia’s top genetic testing startups.
Prenetics, which makes a series of DNA-testing products, has pocketed US$40 million, led by Alibaba and Beyond Ventures, with three other investors joining in its series B funding. It comes 19 months after the Hong Kong crew’s first major round, worth US$10 million.
The service has processed nearly 200,000 DNA samples since it launched late 2014. At the time, it was doing only non-invasive pre-natal testing, but that’s no longer on offer.
“We have a platform of genetic tests, and also we’ve evolved into providing digital health, all within a single app,” says CEO Danny Yeung.
Its line-up now consists of genetic disease risk screening, cancer screening, and family planning screening. The “digital health” part consists of nutrigenomics (how nutrients will affect you, tailored to your DNA results) and pharmacogenomics (the same but for medication).
Not a death sentence
With this evolution, the startup is no longer a one-off purchase to get your results, but a healthcare hub where customers can stick around for guidance.
“The app tells you – hey, these are your results, this is what you should be eating on a daily basis due to your genetics for your most optimal diet,” Yeung tells Tech in Asia. Inside the app, users can talk to dieticians and coaches.
Even where test results reveal serious predispositions towards life-altering or life-threatening diseases, the entrepreneur wants people to realize that we can do a lot to mitigate the threat.
“For example, even though someone might have a high risk of type 2 diabetes, we know today that approximately 90 percent of type 2 diabetes around the world can be prevented with a proper diet,” he explains. A healthier lifestyle helps in many cases too.
“Genes aren’t your destiny,” says Yeung.
The China challenge
Prenetics’ tests are available in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, with more launches across Southeast Asia in the next “one, two, or three quarters,” according to the boss.
With the Alibaba backing, plus its association with earlier investor Ping An, China’s largest insurer, Yeung is eyeing the massive mainland China market – but he’s doing so with an abundance of caution.
“We’ve been very careful not to go into China too soon. If we go into China, we definitely have to have the right partners in place – and the right funding. If we were just a 20 or 30-person company, we’d get kicked out of there in a pretty short time. But now we’ve been able to build quite a credible reputation and business case around the region, in Southeast Asia. So that makes us much stronger,” says the CEO.
Prenetics now has 100 staff, up from 40 at the time of its series A round.
Having said that, “it’s definitely the plan” to launch in mainland China at some point, Yeung states. The startup crew has already begun discussions with Alibaba about how a partnership could be formed.
Already “pretty occupied with Asia,” the team is not yet eyeing the US.
The startup also makes money by partnering with a number of major insurers. “We do not share any genetic data,” Danny stresses.
Alibaba’s cash is from its US$130 million Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund, which was established in late 2015.
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