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‘Be persistent long enough for luck to meet you on the journey’

Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong is the founder and chief executive officer of 54gene – A health technology company advancing the state of healthcare through large-scale discovery and translational research, advanced molecular diagnostics, and inclusive clinical programs for the benefit of Africans and the global population. 54gene recently closed a 15 million-dollar investment that increased the company’s total investment to 20million.

Could you shed more light on 54gene’s focus?
At 54gene, we decided that Africa needed a research and development company as there aren’t a lot of companies like these on the continent. When you do find research facilities, they’re typically public NGOs. It was our belief that we could spur a biotech revolution where as a continent we can study our own genetic variation. Genetics is now leading the way to understanding the cause of diseases, finding new drugs or understanding the reasons why certain drugs work on some populations and not work on others. We wanted to build a company that could lead the way in doing that in Africa. We wanted a company that could potentially discover or have some breakthroughs that improve the lives of Africans and people all over the world. The funding we received is helping us build the right infrastructure to further support our research objectives. For instance, we recently set up one of the largest genomics facilities in Africa and we are also about to set up a Biosafety level 3 research lab that would facilitate the study of infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, Lassa fever by our in-house experts which could provide a cure that can help improve lives.

You mentioned that you just returned from Ogun state, what is 54gene doing in terms of testing capacity in collaboration with the NCDC?
When the crisis hit Nigeria, our first strategic approach was to develop a sustainable solution. One of the ways we did this was to raise funds from some of our collaborators in order to improve the testing capability in public labs and not just private labs. Through the funds raised, we bought PCR machines which were given to the NCDC and some state governments. We wanted public facilities to be equipped, not just for this period but for the future, to help with surveillance and serve as a future support measure to protect us from the next epidemic. Our next action was to leverage our internal molecular capabilities to increase the testing capacity of the country. 54gene has a molecular diagnostics lab in Lagos state that was used for research purposes primarily but we converted it to a COVID-19 lab for this period to ramp up testing. We have partnered with several state governments – Ogun, Ekiti, Kano as well as private sector companies like FCMB, Arnergy, Argentil etc to set up mobile molecular diagnostics laboratories and we have received accreditation from the NCDC to provide testing facilities in these various states.

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As you may know, Senegal is planning to create a testing kit that would cost one dollar, how do you plan to make testing accessible in Nigeria?
I think because of the low testing capacity we’ve had in the country, there has been an issue in targeting prioritised individuals who urgently need the test. The NCDC developed a prioritisation metric to determine this based on their symptoms. The first step for us was to support the NCDC and the states our mobile labs are in to ensure we target those priority individuals who are already showing symptoms first. I must commend Senegal for such a brilliant step, it is a win for the African continent as a whole.
You make a good point when you say we need to work and do exactly what Senegal is doing a ‘need for blended finance.’ What is your suggestion concerning the private and public sector working together?
It is very important that businesses repurpose what they already have and create sustainability. We are able to do what we do because of our partnerships with the private sector such as FCMB that funded thousands of tests in Ogun state, Arnergy that helped in installing solar energy to our labs and gave us three-months solar power for free and some other partners. Also, launching in Kano was also a private sector collaboration with Flour Mills of Nigeria, the company helped tremendously with providing PCR machines, oscillators, testing reagents and others.

From your professional experience, what do you envisage will happen in the next coming months, do you think our interview session will still be on zoom?
(smiles) I can’t say what it will be like because we still have a lot to learn from the pandemic as research is ongoing. But for the next 2 years, there would be a few modifications in research on drugs and vaccines that would hopefully be approved at the end of this year or next year. We would also still be in some form of quarantine or the other. The coming years I see would begin to expand our knowledge on the essential services and workers to employ. Manufacturing companies will have to ensure that their factories are uncontaminated so that they can keep running. I also envisage the safety measures that would be carried out and the clearance that would be needed before traveling. For a country like Nigeria, we need to find new mechanisms that will ensure that people are protected but keep the economy running.

Share your entrepreneurial journey thus far with us?
I started my journey as an entrepreneur while in school. As I started my career, I continued running my business until my career became my business. While studying for my BSc at the University of Calabar, I set up a car wash service for several hotels and hired people but had to stop because it was affecting my studies. After that, I set up a student cinema business where I downloaded movies at cybercafes and played them at the student theatre. I’ve always been entrepreneurial at heart. In 2013 as I was wrapping up my PhD, crowdfunding had just started so I tried to set up a crowdfund for Africa. I lost a lot of money at that time as I had to set it up using sophisticated infrastructure which I couldn’t access. In the same year, I devised a plan to move to the US, get a Masters in Business, work as a Management Consultant for pharmaceutical companies as a way to gain experience and then raise money from Silicon Valley to build the largest healthcare company in Africa. When I moved back to Nigeria, I also consulted for state and federal governments, USAID and other organisations in the healthcare space. While consulting, I discovered that there was a lack of molecular diagnostics capabilities in the country and knew this was what I needed to solve. All these led to me starting 54gene.
So 54gene is like the 54 countries in Africa? (Laughs) Yes, correct.

Share the lessons you have gained in your journey so far?
Well, one important lesson I have gained is: ‘Discipline.’ You need discipline to start, run and finish. When we have dreams, we tend to view it in complex ways, when all we need is to start at a gradual pace and simplify. I have learnt that now. When I couldn’t raise the money to build a molecular diagnosis, I thought about how I could create a service that can put me in that value chain and rapidly integrate building the online portals and I was able to get in and start as a result and now, we have a molecular diagnostics lab. The bottom line is stretch yourself with the wisdom and knowledge needed to grow.

Audience Questions
From Adedayo: There is a rumour that says people of high melanin or the African descent could not contract the virus at the initial spread of the virus. What is your opinion on this?
Well, I guess the rumors have been debunked with the rate of coronavirus infections in Africa, US and the UK and the number of people who have died due to the pandemic. There are studies that the rate of infection can be slower in hotter climates, but that does not mean the virus isn’t infectious. We’re still trying to learn more about it.

Do you think we would get easy access to testing in Nigeria? Let’s use the Senegal case as an example.
Okay, let me say something about the Senegal test. I don’t think the testing kits have been finalized or reviewed for approval by the regulatory bodies. There is no doubt that Senegal is doing a fantastic job, however, it is better we take things easy and not rush. Our lasting safety is what matters.
How much of reality should businesses communicate to their investors and employees at this time?
Well, different methods for different companies. One of the things I did was communicate the severity of the disease to my team and how it was going to affect the economy. I laid down all the facts and was honest and transparent with them. It’s always a good idea to inform your stakeholders so they can work on contingency plans.

How do you keep innovation at the heart of your company during these times?
Well, you need to tell them the capacity you require. We started working on our funding before Covid-19; some people think that we were just lucky to close the funding during Covid-19 because other investors were pulling out of their commitment. One thing I always ask myself is: Am I pushing my team too far out of what we are set to do or am I building in them new capabilities? It depends on how you see it; however, you need to work within that which you are capable of doing. For a company to be innovative, it needs to think of working on the processes to make life easier.

Any last words?
Yes. Preparation and luck; there is a balance to it. If an opportunity comes and you aren’t prepared, then you don’t get the lucky result. Keep working hard and believe in what you are doing but also realise when it’s time to move on to the next thing. The third element is being persistent long enough for luck to meet you on the journey.
This interview was conducted on the 27th of April, 2020
Transcribed by Pennminds

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