In her first semester of university, Toronto-based Cathy Tie secured $100,000 through an accelerator to fund the launch of Ranomics, a business whose technology helps evaluate patients’ risk of genetic diseases. In September, Tie, now 20, raised a $1.6-million seed round from unnamed investors.

Cathy Tie of Ranomics. Photo: Roberto Caruso

Cathy Tie of Ranomics. Photo: Roberto Caruso

I went to several startup competitions when I was still in high school. I was curious about the scene, so I got involved in startup weekends and hackathons. It helped me familiarize myself with the entrepreneurial community and with what it takes to start a company.

“I was also very interested in scientific research. In fact, when we first started Ranomics in the fall of 2014, I was working on an academic research project under Dr. Fritz Roth, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto. That’s also when I met my co-founder, Leo Wan, who was completing his PhD in molecular genetics in the lab.

“While working with Dr. Roth, I came to see a gap in the genetic testing industry—60% of all genetic tests are inconclusive, due to what are called variants of unknown significance, or VUS. That’s because the current methods of understanding VUS are very poor. In the lab, we started generating all possible variants of a human disease gene and subsequently inserting those variants into biological systems like human cell lines or animal models. We found this type of data to be far more accurate than other ways of testing.

“Weeks after starting this work, I learned about SynBioBeta, a biotech startup conference in San Francisco, and decided to go. I brought my suitcase to my chemistry midterm so I could catch the last flight of the day. Attending the conference was an eye-opening experience. I learned about new technologies and companies in Silicon Valley, and met investors, biotech entrepreneurs and people working at startups in the space.

“I also learned about a new project called IndieBio, an accelerator [backed by international venture capital firm SOSV] for early-stage biotech companies that provides funding, lab and office space, and mentorship. I thought, This is the perfect fit for us. When I returned to Toronto, Leo and I submitted an application, and we were accepted into the program. IndieBio became our first investor and supported us as we validated our technology, created our first prototype and grew our idea into a product.

“At the moment, our database offers data on 2,000 different variants in the BRCA1 gene, which is one of the most commonly mutated genes in breast cancer patients. The data sets our company creates are now used by clinical labs and genetic testing businesses across the globe—including such countries as the U.S., France and China—to classify previously unknown genetic variants and to evaluate a patient’s risk of developing hereditary diseases.

“The genetic testing industry is growing faster than ever, as the cost for genome sequencing has dropped from $100 million to less than $1,000 in the past 15 years. This industry has the power to unlock the full potential of preventive and personalized medicine in the coming decades.

“We really want to see change in the genetic testing industry. I believe VUS are a big problem and want our technology to be an important solution. We want to see a lot of positive impact in the way people are classifying genetic mutations today.”

This article is from the October 2016 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

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