Team of experienced entrepreneurs is building an incentivized platform that facilitates DNA data-sharing to fight disease
The way they tell it, the story of how the four founders of GeneOS – Benjamin Tse, Jens Elstner, Albert Chen and Jay Bowles – came together is the kind of thing you might read in a biography of your favorite band. Friendship, serendipity and synergy all played a part in their journey as their blockchain-based genomic big data platform won Block.one’s EOS Global Hackathon series and a cheque for US$500,000.
Jay and Jens co-founded Keepzer, a London-based management interface and analytics app store, in 2013. On a parallel track, in Hong Kong, Albert and Ben were co-founders of UM! Brands, “an eCommerce nano-suction houseware brand,” in 2011, and are also founding partners in Arcana, a California-based cryptoasset management company. Albert and Jay were also friends, however, and competed in a hackathon together in early September. When they saw that Block.one was hosting the London leg of its EOS series later in the same month, they pulled out the stops to assemble their hackathon all-star team.
“It was like a dream to me,” reflected Jens shortly after GeneOS’ triumph had been announced at the climax of the week-long EOS Global Hackathon Grand Finale in Cape Town, South Africa. “We had all kind of worked together before but were not really in close contact. I always wanted to do more with blockchain, so this was a great chance for us.”
Added Benjamin: “I was actually surprised how well we worked together in London because it was the first time I’d met Jens and Jay in person. Albert and I worked together for so many years and they [Jay and Jens] had worked together for so many years. But the roles just clicked really naturally, which was amazing.”
Combining their expertise in technology, engineering, design, marketing and much else besides, the four came up with the idea for GeneOS on convening in the UK.
Albert explained the project’s rationale and operating model. “Ninety-nine per cent of our DNA is still not well understood, so our goal is to help humanity to understand it in order to cure diseases. The first obstacle is that people aren’t incentivized to have their genome sequenced – it’s too expensive and also there are privacy concerns around the data. We address those concerns using blockchain, with our Genome Equity Model, or GEM for short.”
This model allows for the tokenization of genome data – or rather, tokenization of the cashflow that genome data can generate.
“Individuals can then own a piece of that,” Albert added. “Whenever a researcher uses the data, they have to pay. Today they pay genetics companies directly and the individual gets missed out. Also, under our model whoever pays for the sequencing can get dividends, just like it was real-estate investment trust: you put your money in and whatever rental income is generated results in dividends.”
Key to this ecosystem is the use of what is called a non-fungible token (NFT). Each NFT token is unique, and therefore not interchangeable.
“An organization called Unico has come up with an NFT smart contract built on EOSIO that fits very well with what we want to do,” said Albert. “NFTs are a big use-case for blockchain and are perfect for genome data because everyone’s genome data is unique. With an NFT you can represent that on the blockchain.”
Significantly, this allows for a new type of asset class – one where values are driven by scarcity.
“The genome data of people with very rare phenotypes will be highly prized by researchers, and we believe that demand will drive a secondary market in which these NFTs are traded,” predicted Albert.
Having been drawn to EOSIO for its scalability, transaction speeds and ability to deploy smart contracts quickly and easily, GeneOS took plaudits from EOS hackathon judges in London but missed out on the main prizes. Instead, they advanced to the finale by picking up the award for ‘Best Social Impact.’ In Cape Town, they felt they could take the idea to a new level.
“It was great to win the Social Impact prize, but we also felt there was a really strong business case for what we were doing,” reflected Jay. “So went spent our time between London and the finale working on that and getting a really good understanding of the industry. Eventually we ended up really deepening the blockchain use-case as well as the business model.”
In Cape Town, 19 teams competed to impress judges in a final Demo Day following an Incubation Week that involved close mentoring by Block.one specialists, pitching workshops and a lively schedule of speaker sessions.
“It’s been intense,” said Jay. “Basically 7-11 every day. But we’ve learnt so much, particularly around pitching. Block.one did an incredible job right from the beginning and the mentors have been amazing the way they’ve helped us.”
WATCH: EOS Global Hackathon Grand Finale Team Pitches Playlist
Winning the cash prize felt “surreal,” added Albert as he sketched out GeneOS’ plans to ready the platform for marketization. The next few months will be spent talking to researchers and pharmaceutical companies to gauge their true appetite for whole genome data and determine what kind of phenotypes they need most.
“Once we have that we can go and talk to non-profit disease organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association and Global Lyme Alliance and offer the product to their patients and members,” he continued. “They are the people who will benefit most from the results of this research and that’s what’s important to remember. Thanks to blockchain, we can really deepen our understanding of the human genome, tackle illness and ultimately save lives.”