Startup Interview

  • [Startup Interview] Professor Young Seok Ju of ‘GENOMEinSIGHT’, a company of experts in cancer genome and whole-genome fields
  • 창업원
  • 2022-10-30 20:24:00
  • 231

Today we will meet a ‘GENOMEinSIGHT’, a faculty startup started by Professor Young Seok Ju.

GENOMEinSIGHT is a whole-genome big data company that was created by Professor Young Seok Ju, well-known in the cancer genome and whole-genome fields, in the KAIST Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering. Professor Ju is opening the path for using genetic big data in the development of new drugs.

Can you briefly introduce GENOMEinSIGHT?

GENOMEinSIGHT was established to contribute to the SMART drug development and precision medical care for cancer and rare disease patients by expanding the capabilities to analyze and interpret genomic big data accurately. The whole-genome sequencing (WGS) that my team and I have been developing and experience became the base for our data analysis technology. The company was established in January 2020, and we have 15 people working together as a team.

Hearing this makes GENOMEinSIGHT, which is based on whole-genome sequencing and data analysis technology, more interesting!

Why did you decide on this technology as the startup item?

I always believed our technology is globally at the top level. In 2009, the Korean whole-genome research that I participated in was published in Nature, and in 2019, a research about the mutational history of lung whole-genome conducted at the KAIST GSMSE lab was published in Cell. Our technology can revolutionize the medical science field, because it traces genes, the most fundamental material of life phenomena, at once. However, this technology needs to become more standardized and scaled-up system to be freely used in hospitals and industrial sites to create real products. This is difficult to realize and it is hard to match the demand and speed at the laboratory level. Demand from hospitals and pharmaceutical companies is high, but no company in the world can make it happen. That’s why I decided to start this business.

I heard that the whole-genome data technology can test structural variation, total amount of cancer mutation, fusion genes, and copy-number variation at once, and is seen as a complete type of genetic analysis. Starting from a laboratory, GENOMEinSIGHT’s whole-genome research will expand to enable more data analysis. We hope the whole-genome research becomes a key to treating various diseases.

What made you decide to start a business while doing research?

The amount of data available in the genome field is increasing at an astronomical rate. Thus, the convergence of medical science, computer, science, and statistics as well as a huge infrastructure that can handle big data are necessary. A single laboratory is not enough to carry out this large-scale research. If the role of labs is the development of core technology, large center or corporations should operate the technology on a large scale.

I believe our technology will be widely applied in the medical life science field in the next 1-2 years, and I will build the capabilities necessary for research and development to realize technology commercialization.

It seems that technology in demand should lead to startups to become widely-used. Thus, it is necessary to promote startups through technology commercialization and create an environment where teams like GENOMEinSIGHT can start their businesses.

What is the difference between analyzing whole-genome and genome data, and how can it be used?

Whole-genome is the final evolution of genome technology, dealing with the ‘whole’ genome. The word genome is made up of ‘Gene’ and ‘-ome’ (meaning whole), so whole-genome is actually a tautology for genome. On the other hand, the genomes that are used today, such as panels and exomes, are partial and not enough to call them ‘genomes’.

Panels and exomes only test part of our genomes. Depending on the size, panel can test 0.01-0.1% and exomes can test 1% of genomes. Whole-genome technology can test the entire genome (100%) at once and discover more mutations that could not be found through panels and exomes. The reason why panel and exomes are used is because data production costs are expensive and there is no technology that can handle big data. As technology evolved, the time has come to utilize whole-genome data. The mutations found through whole-genomes can precisely identify the cause of cancer, and provide the optimal drug based on it. Accumulating these data from many patients can become the target data in new drug development. Our company’s mission is to secure and apply these technologies and big data.

Until now, panel and exomes were the widely-used technology in the genome field, but whole-genome technology can be seen as the final stage of genome technology. As Professor Ju said, discovering mutations through whole-genome technology will accelerate the drug development process for various diseases. We hope the GENOMEinSIGHT team not only develops whole genome technology, but also accumulates data and utilizes it to contribute to the medical life science field.

Last year, which GENOMEinSIGHT technology helped identify the process of destroying COVID-19 related lung cells, and how can this technology be utilized in the future?

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unexpected misfortune to the mankind. To solve these infectious diseases, the convergence of medicine, virology, immunology, epidemiology, as well as the genome field is necessary. For example, the UK conducts a massive genetic analysis of patients’ genomes and each virus. Collecting and analyzing genome samples on a national scale can discover the cause of COVID-19 or knowledge on mutant virus. Korea has been successful in preventing the spread of the epidemic, but failed to lead research due to the lack of data collection, transfer, production, analysis system on a national scale. It’s very unfortunate.

Our laboratory and GENOMEinSIGHT received the opportunity to research the COVID-19 virus from a different angle. Our lab had the technology to establish a model for human lung cells growth (organoid) for cancer research. While thinking about how we could contribute to solving urgent social problems, we realized that we could infect our organoid with the COVID-19 virus. We used the resources for cancer research to study infectious diseases. Based on this, we became the first to establish a COVID-19 virus lung model in a laboratory, and tracked the virus using genome technology to find out how human alveoli cells are infected with virus and how they respond. For this research, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Seoul National University Hospital, and Cambridge Stem Cell Research Institute in the United Kingdom helped us publish our study in the journal Cell Stem Cell in December 2020. Our technology is expected to play a major role in identifying the infection mechanisms of various infectious diseases as well as coronavirus at the molecular and cellular levels in the future.

GENOMEinSIGHT’s technology will be utilized in many areas besides the whole-genome research field. The results of COVID-19 lung cell research are also seen as possible because GENOMEinSIGHT has been continuously researching in various ways. We hope the team continues to research and discover vaccines as well as infection mechanisms to prevent future pandemics.

A variety of platforms in the medical data field are emerging. What is the competitive edge of GENOMEinSIGHT?

Our competitive edge is that we have the know-how to precisely analyze and interpret whole-genome data, infrastructure and manpower. We are also trying hard to create a warm company environment so that the best of the best can do research happily. We will move forward with the goal of establishing an infrastructure for precision medicine around the world.

GENOMEinSIGHT’s technology will be the key. Nevertheless, the most important part is the team members who analyze and interpret the whole-genomes. The infrastructure of GENOMEinSIGHT and team members together will build and develop data on whole-genomes. We hope that the whole-genome technology establishes a precision medicine system and help drug development.

What were the difficulties of faculty startup, and how did you overcome them?

The most difficult part is leading a lab as a university professor and a company as a CEO. It may be a difficulty that is insurmountable. You must pay attention to both the lab and company, and cannot neglect either one. It’s especially difficult because I have limited time and strength. Fortunately, students and company members understand and help me.
It was also difficult for me to adapt to the startup environment because I had never run a company before. Meeting investors and appealing the advantages and scalability of our technology in a short period of time was difficult than publishing a paper. I was able to meet great investors thanks to the help of many acquaintances and luck.

Health is more important than anything else. In order to be excel at both research and guiding future generations, one must prioritize health and distribute work. Starting a business is not easy, but difficulties can be overcome with team members.

How should Startup KAIST supplement and promote faculty startups?

I think it is very encouraging that KAIST is active in promoting faculty startups. KAIST professors are experts with the world’s best technology, and these technologies are seeds that can lead to startups. However, you have to deal with tasks other than research to start a business. After the school reviews and approves the faculty startup, professors will experience unfamiliar things such as establishing a company, arranging office space, attracting investment, and recruiting members. Startup KAIST provided a lot of help, but I wish there were additional support in these areas.

It seems that administrative support should expand to these areas. Currently, we are undergoing the process and trial-and-error of establishing the faculty startup system. The expansion of support is clearly necessary as faculty startup becomes more active.

What is GENOMEinSIGHT and your ultimate goal and vision?

As I mentioned, a large-scale infrastructure, expert team, and a research-industry ecosystem must be established to conduct and develop a world-class genome research. Cambridge, England and Boston, U.S. are cities with a well-established research-industry ecosystem. I hope this kind of environment is also established in Korea. I will also endeavor to create such environment in the company and at KAIST. Based on this, GENOMEinSIGHT will work to become a company and researcher that gives insight to reveal the mysteries of medical life science through genomes.

GENOMEinSIGHT is building an infrastructure that can analyze whole-genomes and interpret genome data. Professor Young Seok Ju and GENOMEinSIGHT’s whole-genome technology is the world’s best and effective in studying mutations. We believe the results and data of GENOMEinSIGHT will build a precision healthcare system in the near future. We look forward to the innovation of the medical community and the development of new drugs that GENOMEinSIGHT technology will create.
This was Professor Young Seok Ju of GENOMEinSIGHT.