Y Combinator-backed African health-tech startup 54gene has raised $15 million in Series-A funding to increase knowledge about African genomic data for use in health research and medicine development. Africa’s pharmaceutical industry is worth $14 billion, according to McKinsey. Despite this, data from Africa is limited.

54gene plans to use the $15 million funding to scale its efforts to detect and identify DNA markers from people of African origin that have traditionally been ignored by researchers and pharmaceutical firms. Lagos-based 54gene has been described as Africa’s version of popular U.S. DNA genetic testing company 23andMe.

54gene collects DNA samples for research to improve healthcare for people of African descent. It also uses DNA samples to develop treatments for diseases that impact all populations. It does this through biobanking — the process of collecting samples of bodily fluid or tissue for research to improve our understanding of health and disease. Two percent of genetic material used for pharmaceutical research comes from Africa, while genetic data on Caucasians makes up 90 percent of the data and samples available.

54gene was founded in 2019 by Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong, who has a Ph.D. in cancer biology from the University of London. In addition to its Nigerian headquarters and biobank that can store 60,000 genetic samples, 54gene has an office in Washington D.C.

Dr Abasi Ene-Obong, Founder and CEO of 54gene

“As of the time we launched, less than 3 percent of all genome-wide association studies globally had been conducted in Africa. There was a lack of data coming from Africans… and the diaspora,” 54gene CEO Dr. Ene-Obong told TechCrunch. “We are trying to address the gap that currently exists in precision medicine for people of the African continent,” he added.

54gene claims to currently work with more than 300 researchers, clinicians, and geneticists across Africa. The startup plans to use the new funding to expand its biobank capabilities to 200,000 samples. Its longer-term goal is to manage up to 500,000 samples.

A 54gene laboratory

The $15 million funding round was led by New York-based Adjuvant Capital, Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is heavily involved in funding disease prevention, treatment, and research in Africa.

Following on from a $4.5 million seed round in 2019, 54gene has raised $19.5 million in total funding since it launched two years ago. Others that participated in 54gene’s Series-A funding round include Raba Capital, V8 Capital, and Ingressive Capital. Additional investors included Silicon Valley-based accelerator Y Combinator, one of the world’s most powerful startup accelerator programs, as well as Better Ventures, Fifty Years, KdT Ventures, Aera VC and Pioneer Fund.