A Startup From London Brings Personalised Epigenetic Testing Directly To The Everyday Consumer.
06th August 2018 by Akash Patel
As part of this month’s #genomejuly topic I was interested in the advances of the epigenome innovations in the biotech industry. I, therefore, recently spoke with Chronomics CEO, Dr. Tom Stubbs. Chronomics is a startup that brings personalised epigenetic testing directly to the everyday consumer. They offer a saliva test that will enable you to track epigenetic changes as a consequence of your diet, environment and lifestyle. Epigenetics is the study of alterations in the expression of genes without direct changes to the genetic code itself. During this month’s interview we spoke about Chronomics’ development and their realization of the potential of epigenetic testing for personal health. I discussed with Tom the key challenges Chronomics overcame in their growth as an early-stage biotech company and his advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in the life sciences.
Tom eloquently summarizes the company’s value proposition: “For the first time, we are able to show how your environment and lifestyle is affecting your health from a simple saliva test. Combined with our online platform we allow you to track positive changes to your health and lifestyle over a course of time”.
“Chronomics is an epigenetic testing company that enables you as an individual to take control of the future written on your DNA”, Tom continues. His incredible passion for epigenetics and its effect on peoples’ way of life was sparked while he was conducting his PhD at the Babraham Institute, in the lab of Prof. Wolf Reik, a leading pioneer in the field. Tom developed wet lab methods and built computational tools for epigenetic research, such as single-cell approaches including sequencing and live cell imaging to understand epigenetic mechanisms at the level of one single cell. In addition, he built epigenetic predictors to improve our understanding of the epigenetic changes that occur during ageing. Noticing that your biological age can actually be different to your chronological age. Tom describes how he wanted to understand whether environmental and lifestyle factors could influence epigenetics, independent of biological age. Tom goes on to say, “From an academic perspective these models are not super exciting, but from a consumer perspective they provide key insights. For instance, knowing how air pollution, body composition or diet are affecting a person’s wellbeing provide exciting opportunities to enact positive change before the onset of longer term health issues.”
A test that indicates how our lifestyle and environment are impacting our health, by showing how these factors are being written onto our DNA? My initial thoughts were that this seems a brilliant idea but surely, we are a long-way off from bringing it to the consumer? Epigenetics seems a complicated field in its infancy but hearing about the research Tom had conducted made me realize how far it has progressed.
There are various epigenetic changes that occur to your genome over time through the addition or removal of molecules such as methyl groups on DNA (DNA methylation) and modifications to histone tails. These changes can occur from exposure to lifestyle and environmental factors such as poor diet, smoking and air pollution (Simmons, 2008). Chronomics focuses on DNA methylation, the archetypal epigenetic mark. Their online platform will enable you to make and track positive changes to your lifestyle and the effect this has on your epigenetics. Their platform also gives you real indicators about your long-term health prospects.
There are many changes that can be derived from a person’s epigenetics, as Tom describes, “We have a range of lifestyle factors that we can break down into categories, some of which are purely environmental such as exposure to smoke. Others of which are derived from areas such as metabolism, diet and mental health. We have some epigenetic markers that are indicative of mental health, such as stress and trauma”, Tom goes on to explain that mental health-related epigenetic changes are environmental, but internally derived and show how your mind can affect your bodily environment. “There are also miscellaneous epigenetic factors like biological age, that isn’t just how old you are, but what your ‘epigenetic age’ looks like. If you have an epigenetic, or biological, age lower than your chronological age then you tend to have better health prospects”. I was surprised to learn that many centenarians tend to have a biological age which is younger than their chronological age. This probably answers why they have lived until 100!
Tom’s idea to bring epigenetics to the business-to-costumer (B2C) market, led to the formation of Chronomics, personalised epigenetic testing. As Tom goes onto explain, “I teamed up with Dani who I worked with on computational epigenetics at Cambridge, Toby who I knew from Oxford, he has a PhD in Biotechnology and Process Automation, and another friend from back home called Charles who has a background in Sales and Marketing. We founded the company in December 2017 and received seed funding from one of the largest biotech VC’s in the world”. I was intrigued to further understand how as a team with predominantly a background in academic science they had tackled the journey into entrepreneurship and building a company. As Tom puts it “Early January transitioning from a mindset of ‘Epigenetic testing is really interesting scientifically and there is a lot we can do in this space from an academic perspective as well as a consumer perspective’ to ‘This is an awesome business opportunity and there is an unmet need that we can address’, is quite a different mentality to be in, not only personally but also as a team.” Tom explained to me that the key to overcoming these challenges was the diverse background of the team and the varying perspectives they each brought to the table.
Tom never initially intended to go into entrepreneurship, he viewed himself as progressing into a postdoctoral position in another area of the life sciences “My aim was to go and do a post-doc after PhD, potentially not even in the field of epigenetics, to do something completely different. But as I was working on these epigenetic markers of age, I saw great potential.” Chronomics is a great example of how scientists with a background in life sciences can successfully transition to commercialise their academic knowledge in a way that is impactful to the lives of the general population. Tom explained his vision for the company progressing forwards as empowering consumers with knowledge of their health through epigenetic testing. “From a simple saliva test people can see how their environment and lifestyle is affecting their long-term health and bring about proactive, personalised and preventative healthcare.”
“We are predominantly based in the UK, but we have sales in Australia, Spain, Ireland, US and Canada.” Tom informs me, “Currently we are in the process of setting up distribution channels with healthcare systems such as clinics, private practice in the UK and Europe and gym chains as well.”
In line with the mission of the Science Entrepreneurs Club, in building a community of entrepreneurial scientists, I spoke to Tom about the advice he would give young life scientists looking to build their own companies. “For science-based innovation or startups, ideally you see or understand the science and technology behind something that hasn’t yet been realised. As a scientist, I think you will recognise this opportunity when it appears. I would encourage them to ensure once they have an idea, to check there is no one elsewhere that is doing that or solving a similar problem equally well. Assuming it’s an emerging technology, the key would be to then identify that in 2-3 years’ time the size of the need will be great enough. If after this it’s still looking good, go for it! Raise some initial funding and give it a go because you’ll be surprised how much financial support and business development support there is for science-based products and services. For us, we had zero business background and if it wasn’t for the initial funding and support we received we wouldn’t be where we are now. Once you have your concept, it’s never too early, don’t waste your time coming up with an elaborate business proposal because as a scientist how you think your business will work is just not how it will end up. Go and raise some money from decent investors and they will teach you how to go about achieving your vision”. Tom goes onto talk about the importance of team “Being a founder can be an incredibly lonely place to be and having a team who share the vision lets you grow your idea in a supportive environment. If you have an exciting idea you shouldn’t be afraid to share that idea with others you know who would like to come on board. You want people who are from a diversity of backgrounds and opinions, not just those who are the same as you. You want antagonism, friendly antagonism!”
Chronomics went through Rebelbio, the world’s first life science accelerator backed by the venture capitalists SOSV. “If you’ve never had business experience before then definitely do it, once you’ve been through with an idea - you get it. It would have taken us years to get to where we got in 3 months. Even if accelerators seem like not the best deal in the world I definitely don’t have any regrets as to where it has enabled us to be six months from starting. It provides access to individuals with the wealth of knowledge in growing early-stage companies and who push you quite hard to change the way you think about the problem. As a scientist you’re probably thinking of it as though it were research, that’s just not how the business world works! And that’s quite a hard thing to get over because you’re so convinced that’s the right way to think. So, the only way to do it is through these accelerator programs.”
It was great speaking with Tom and learning about the growth and development of Chronomics and his own entrepreneurial journey. Epigenetics is a potentially vital indicator of health and we wish Chronomics good luck in progressing forwards! If you would like more information about the accelerator programs available, like Rebelbio, visit the Science Entrepreneur Club Website.
Simmons, D. (2008) Epigenetic influence and disease. Nature Education 1(1):6