Sophia Genetics' co-founder Jurgi Camblong talks about how to build a global genetic medicine firm

 
Harriet Green
Follow Harriet
UK Biobank Centre Begins Major Research Initative
Sophia Genetics technology is now used by 140 hospitals across 22 countries (Source: Getty)

I was asked recently to present to a group of entrepreneurs about my experience. And I ended up saying to them ‘it’s just like Rocky – you take your chance, you focus and you go’. The mistake as an entrepreneur is thinking too much.”

Jurgi Camblong co-founded data-driven medical startup Sophia Genetics in 2011. “I’m a scientist by background, and I could see that the world of medical data was changing – there was a lot more tech, and we were seeing the beginning of DNA sequencing.” Camblong’s frustration was that increasing numbers of hospitals were producing a lot of data, but weren’t making use of it for patients. With co-founders Pierre Hutter and Lars Steinmetz, he realised that a specialist middleman was needed. Leaving personalised medicine company GenePredictis, he started building his own firm. “The key thing for us was understanding our stakeholders – what did they need, and how could we adapt to move faster than our competitors?”

Now, Camblong heads up the world’s largest genomics network, diagnosing numerous disorders and conditions from cystic fibrosis and hereditary heart problems to cancers, using advanced algorithms which retain and build on their learning as they go along. Within two hours, Sophia Genetics’s software can analyse samples for genes indicative of disease, pick them out – like BRCA-1 in breast cancer – and label them with any available information on treatments, helping doctors prescribe more accurately, and bringing costs down hugely.

The technology of Swiss-based Sophia Genetics is now used by 140 hospitals across 22 countries. British entrepreneur Mike Lynch’s firm Invoke Capital has put $18m into the company, which now has 36,000 patients tested and on record. This year, the firm expects 80,000 patients to benefit. Several of Britain’s leading hospitals – like Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital and St George’s in London – are already on the network, which enables institutions across the globe to access data that others have collected and use it to benefit their patients.

Uneasy bedfellows

In Camblong’s world, the more data that can be pulled from the largest number of sources, the greater the benefits – because Sophia Genetics’s product is based on building up a global picture of gene behaviour. “Our algorithms perform better with more data – it really is a case of big is beautiful, but that does mean knowledge has to be pooled.”

But securing cooperation isn’t always easy. “This is a very complicated and competitive industry. We are obliged to work with existing systems, but lots of people have their own kingdoms, and any disruption is viewed like black cabs view Uber. But we want to help the maximum number of patients, and that means we need to work with hospitals.” Camblong says the key is demonstrating to each hospital how his technology can improve its service. “There was so much scepticism when we contacted the first hospitals, but once you’ve proved the benefits, co-operation and adoption is faster.”

Counterpoint

When it comes to the genomics industry – which the likes of IBM are already working in – Camblong is confident that Sophia Genetics can be one of three market leaders, with two American competitors, and it at the helm in Europe. “We’re in a good position to be the leader in Europe. Some other European firms are looking at emerging markets, even the US. Until we’ve found the right partner, we won’t be focusing on the US. We’ll stick to expanding across Europe for now.”

But being in a high-growth sector that is full of promise also means that there are reasons to be cautious. “Genomics is going to be a game-changer. It’s paving the way to e-health in hospitals, but it is in a boom currently. The stock market is going down; our industry is really overvalued. In our case, we’ve always been quite reasonable and conservative, but others in the field are at too high a value. That can mean investors lose trust. You have to be particularly careful as an entrepreneur, because you want your story to be a sustainable one.”

I ask Camblong about the difficulty of patients having access to their own medical data. In the UK, for example, you do not have the right to hold your own records. “I don’t know when we’ll see an industry breakthrough on this, to be honest. We should all have a simple access code to allow us to see and use data about us, and that should be the case wherever you are. That has to happen, and it should already be happening, but I’m not very positive about it happening any time soon.” One way a development could come about, says Camblong, is if a company is built which enables people to log in securely and hold and access their own health records.

He gives the straightforward example that about 50 per cent of drugs can’t be metabolised by certain people – some can’t metabolise paracetamol, for example. “It wouldn’t cost much more than £150 to create such information for the whole lifetime of an individual. That gives someone so much more control. Imagine going to the pharmacy and being able to check whether a medicine is actually going to be effective for you.”

In five years’ time, Camblong aims to be managing the “largest network of clinical genomics communities in the world. I would like us to have analysed 1m patients across the world”. This will enable hospitals in Iran, India, Latin America to diagnose patients as well as in the UK, US or Switzerland. “In that sort of time period, we will be able to say for cancer – and cardiology – ‘the cancer of this one patient looks like the cancer of 10,000 others, so we can expect at least 40 per cent receiving treatment and surviving’. The technology is there, the data is there – the challenge is convincing people to trust you and work with you.”

Related articles