Meet The Man Helping People Take Their Health Into Their Own Hands
Most start-ups aim to change lives, but Prenetics is going one step further by hopefully saving them. Four years ago, Generation T honouree Danny Yeung had no medical training but spotted a gap in the market in the rapidly evolving arena of home DNA tests. People he knew were taking these tests to map their family tree—but he noted they were far less likely to look into their health.
Genetic testing that shows us which cancers we have an inherited weakness for can allow us to make lifestyle changes that could beat our fate. The most famous example of someone taking control of their health in such a way is actress Angelina Jolie, who had a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy after discovering she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation, which put her at an 80-87 percent chance of getting breast or ovarian cancer over the course of her lifetime. Equally, finding out our body's dietary sensitivities and nutrient needs, and making the requisite lifestyle changes, can substantially improve our overall health.
And at the forefront of DNA testing to help improve your health is serial entrepreneur Danny Yeung. The previous CEO of Groupon for East Asia arrived on the medical scene with no prior knowledge of the industry, but he has gone on the create one of the largest genetic testing companies in the world.
Since launching in 2014 the company has focused on its B2B offerings, with over US$50 million in funding from the likes of Alibaba and Ping An propelling its growth. In November 2018, Prenetics launched its first consumer-facing DNA kits under a new brand, Circle.
Yeung wants to give everyone the power to control their own health. He is determined to change the way we relate to illness, shifting the focus to prevention and taking a tailored approach that accounts for each person’s unique genetic profile and health needs. For the entrepreneur, this includes tests on both himself and his daughter—with the upshot being that he's had to change his own lifestyle in a bid to steer clear of colon cancer. We speak to him about his journey.
How did you get into this field?
I was an entrepreneur, not a medical professional, and I had been working as CEO of Groupon while looking at investing in early-stage companies. I’m always looking for a gap in the market and I’ve got a real entrepreneurial bug. I looked at a few industries and chose healthcare—not just to create another company but to do something really worthwhile.
How have you found the process so far?
I’ve been really satisfied with our progress, although there is a lot more to do. I’m extremely proud that consumers who have received our testing products have made real changes to their lifestyle.
What was your DNA test experience?
I was one of the only people in the company who found out, through our DNA test, that I had a high risk of cancer—colon cancer specifically. It was scary initially but I felt I was really lucky to know this, as half of all cancers get to stage two without detection. I have already taken steps to change my diet and lifestyle. I’ve lost 10kg, cut out meat and have regular colonoscopies. I’m now 40 years old and I’ve never felt healthier.
What would you say to people who are too scared to try it?
There is a misconception that genetics are your destiny—but you can still modify your behaviour to reduce your chances of ever getting sick. Environmental factors are significant to your chances of getting cancer but many people only change their lifestyle when something goes wrong. However, prevention is far more successful in the case of 80 percent of chronic diseases.
Would you have your kids take a DNA test?
Absolutely. I have a daughter and I had her take the test so we know what she needs to look out for over the course of her lifetime. In the next three to five years it will become commonplace to test yourself and your children. In fact, in the USA it has already taken hold—about 15 million people have already done it and in the next three years that will go up to 40 million. That’s because in the US there is a lot of awareness and education around it—but not as much in Asia or Europe. But that’s changing fast.
What happens if the result shows a high risk of cancer?
People get their results and if the cancer is specific they now know what they need to look out for and inform their doctor about. In terms of everyday life, many consumers research diets and exercises that can make positive changes—a nutritional consultant can help with this.
What has been the most difficult part of the journey so far?
Definitely education and awareness—and showing people what the test means and what you can get out of it. When it comes to initial concerns, I tell people it’s a very easy process—a saliva swab and a 30-minute consultation, where you can speak to a genetic expert. Our mission statement is giving people power to be in control of their own health.
What makes you stand out from other DNA testing companies?
Our price point is really affordable. The cancer screen test is US$300 and the nutrition test is US$200. We also have really good after-test care. We follow up with all customers on their health journeys, offering them support and access to our health coaches and genetic counsellors.
Where do you go from here?
In the past four years, the company has grown from 10 to over 100 people, and we have managed to secure over US$50m in funding—so we are expanding daily. We have just launched our consumer-facing platform, Circle, and we are hoping to expand our international offerings next. So we still have a long journey ahead.
Visit Circle to learn more.