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DNA-testing startup Prenetics gets $10m series A to ensure the meds won’t kill you

“Now the drugs don’t work, they just make you worse,” sang the British band The Verve. That probably wasn’t a reference to prescribed meds. But medication is often ineffective for some people – and in many cases it can prove fatal rather than curative. That’s what DNA-testing startup Prenetics is working to beat.

Prenetics today revealed it has scored another major chunk of funding just four months after its previous round. The firm has secured US$10 million series A led by the VC wing of Chinese insurance giant Ping An.

The major new backer will help the startup expand into the massive mainland China market.

Prenetics makes a non-invasive test called iGenes that helps physicians predict the right medication, at the right dosage, based on a patient’s DNA, explains the startup’s blurb. The results come back direct to the patient through the Prenetics mobile app within 48 hours. The app includes a “Pill Box” to help people follow the right treatment exactly as prescribed.

“Every year, millions of people suffer from adverse drug reactions,” says CEO Danny Yeung. He adds that China sees 190,000 deaths each year as a result. That number comes from the World Health Organization, which states that adverse drug reactions are a more serious problem in China than in richer nations. Bad reactions to medication are the fifth leading cause of death and illness in the developed world.

Avoiding fatal mistakes

Danny explains to Tech in Asia that the Chinese insurance company will aid Prenetics’ move into mainland China.

“For any insurer, there’s a strong reimbursement angle with our iGenes test,” he says. “[It] provides policyholders with innovation and added value which then treats them on a personalized basis, therefore giving them the right treatment. This avoids the trial and error approach or one size fits all, thus also allowing insurers to save on healthcare costs.”

Prenetics is a part of a fast-growing startup industry in DNA testing, which covers everything from ancestry (like 23AndMe) to food safety (as with Clear Labs). Prenetics is on the pharmacogenomics side of things, which is the study of how genes affect a person’s response to drugs. It’s a field that was first recognized by Pythagoras around 500 BC when he made the link between the dangers of fava bean ingestion and various illnesses. But it wasn’t until the 1990s, as DNA sequencing became an important part of biotechnology, that the term – a portmanteau of pharmacology and genomics – came into common usage in medicine.

“We’ve evolved to focus on pharmacogenomics, which has been in the R&D stage for the past three-plus years,” says Danny, explaining why Prenetics pivoted away from what it launched as back in 2014 – a non-invasive pre-natal test for genetic abnormalities designed to be taken from week ten of pregnancy. Prenetics started earlier, operating in stealth after being conceived as spin-off from a university project in 2009.

The original founder of Prenetics, Dr. Lawrence Tzang, is the chief scientific officer, while the experienced entrepreneur Danny – he started uBuyiBuy, which later sold to Groupon – spearheads business development.

He describes the new focus on tests to avoid adverse drug reactions as “significantly important” and “a game-changer here in Asia.”

Prenetics now has just over 40 staffers. That’s anticipated to double over the next 12 months. The crew has just leased a new lab and sizeable office space.

Previous investor Venturra Capital, backed by Indonesian retail and media and a ton of other stuff conglomerate Lippo Group, which threw an approximate “several million dollars” at Prenetics back in November, also took part in this fresh funding. So did earlier backer 500 Startups. The other contributor is Capital Union Investments and COENT Venture Partners.

It’s the first time that Ping An Ventures and Venturra Capital have invested in a Hong Kong startup, points out Danny.

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