Many students and new graduates have opted to launch their own initiatives instead of going the traditional route in job hunting. First-year life sciences student Cathy Tie is one such student. Recently, Tie collaborated with a colleague to launch Ranomics, a company that uses ongoing research to develop a genetic database to sequence human genomes in a personalized manner. The company became legally incorporated last week.
Tie’s passions lie in the integration between science and business, and making scientific discoveries more available to the public. She has worked on a number of research projects in the past, with her most recent project in using DNA sequencing technology to test for rare mutations.
In an effort to take a step in the direction of improving the field of preventative medicine, Tie hopes to create a means to better screen for possible diseases.
With $100,000 of funding from San Francisco-based venture capital firm, SOSventures, Tie and her team will travel to San Francisco in February to participate in a 100-day accelerator program to further develop their project.
In an interview with The Varsity, Tie spoke about her research and the goals she has for her company.
The Varsity: Could you describe your research?
Cathy Tie: I’m working in Dr. [Frederick] Roth’s lab at Mount Sinai Hospital, and we are working on systematically changing every amino acid in rare genetic variants for disease genes. Ultimately, we are making a database of the effects of rare genetic variants of disease genes.
TV: How did you get interested in research?
CT: I’ve actually been conducting research since I was 14 or 15. Back in high school, I did a lot of science fairs. In grade 11, I did a project that was in the Department of Immunology at U of T — it was on B cells [a type of immune cell]. I ended up publishing the paper, and did a science fair, and it was really, really exciting… This year, naturally, I just continued doing research, but in a different field — molecular genetics. I’ve always been really into bio research — whether it’s biotechnology, or biochem, or immunology.
TV: What are some contemporary issues in science that you are passionate about?
CT: Right now, what I’m really passionate about is… allocating funding for science projects. A lot of the funding from [the] government and the private sector is going to translational medicine research, and there is not enough going to basic science research. That’s a problem in the long run, because we need basic science research to build upon new discoveries. I’m really passionate about that, and that’s why I started a business — because I think it’s a really good way to promote science and get funding in a different way than the traditional route from the government.
TV: Can you expand on the reason why you decided to start your own company instead of pursuing a more traditional academic route in scientific research?
CT: The main reason is because I feel like a business model is a tool for scalability and [reaching] the public. [It is] a lot better than writing a science paper and only affecting the people reading your science paper, which I find very exciting. I feel that [because of] the competition in the business world, we’re competing with a lot of tech companies, which is very exciting.
TV: How did you initially come up with the idea for your company and how did you go about making it come to life?
CT: I’ve been working on a group project with a post-doc at the Roth Lab since September. There was a competition for a biotechnology start-up in San Francisco, and I decided to put together a business plan spontaneously with a PhD candidate that was in the same building as me. His name is Leo [Wan]… Roth is very encouraging, so we just applied. But then, right after we applied, we realized there could be potential to this company. So, we just continued working on this company and we applied for another startup accelerator in San Francisco, called Indie Bio, and its parent company is SOSventures. What they do is they give you $50,000 for eight per cent equity and another $50,000 for lab equipment and indirect costs that you would need as a company. So it’s a total of $100,000. We will be moving to San Francisco to develop this company… and we are just waiting to start our accelerator program in February.
TV: What is the big idea behind your company, and what do you hope to achieve?
CT: The ultimate goal is to improve the preventative medicine industry by improving the personalized genomics sequencing… Right now, there is definitely not enough information on the human genome to say that, for example, “You have a 67 per cent chance of getting cancer,” which is why a lot of companies that do personalized genomic sequencing are not successful. We are trying to get more data [and] build a giant database through our technology to more accurately predict what kind of diseases you are likely to have based on your genomic code alone.
TV: What are the methods that you use to carry out this procedure and when will it be available to the public?
CT: Currently, we are testing different nucleotide substitutions in model organisms to give a functional assay score in every variant so we can see how a mutation can affect the disease gene. We are still very much in the research and development phase, so we are actually unsure when it will be available to the public, but we hope to reach out to the public at the accelerator program in San Francisco.
TV: How do you think this company will benefit society as a whole?
CT: This overall improves the preventative medicine industry. People [will be] more aware of their health before they actually get the disease — preventi[on] is always better than treatment. The earlier you know [about the illness], the better you are going to treat it.
TV: What do you think is the current relationship between business and science?
CT: I feel like in the past, science and business haven’t been together. It’s a merging field, definitely. There’s currently a biohacking movement going on. For example, the organization SynBioBeta — I went to their conference in San Francisco two months ago, and I see work they are doing to support synthetic biology. It’s very similar to hacking in technology — computer programming, making apps — but this time it’s actually biology. It’s very different from the traditional academic institution applying for government funding, but, rather, you are translating that kind of culture into a more competitive business culture, so you are mixing the two.
TV: What do you find exciting about your work?
CT: To be honest, I just really enjoy the competitive atmosphere of the business world, and also enjoy academic research. So, just mixing the two really excites me — because I get to do both [those] things at once that I’m super passionate about. At the same time, I’m reaching out to a lot of people, and I can potentially affect a lot of people’s lives in the future.
TV: Do you have any advice for students wanting to launch their own company?
CT: I guess I have a small piece of advice. I feel like from what I’ve learned, to start a science-based company is more about having a vision. Not necessarily specializing in a field of research or specializing in business, but rather knowing a lot about a lot of fields and having a vision to provide something in the larger picture.
TV: What are your plans for the future?
CT: I know that next month I’ll be going to San Francisco for the accelerator program, and I’m hoping to finish semester two, and I’ll be working on this company in San Francisco over the summer as well. I don’t really know much beyond that.
This interview has ben edited and condensed for clarity and length.