When Jelena Aleksic and Dr Robert Stojnic approached Foundation East, their social enterprise start-up, GeneAdviser, did not meet the lending criteria of mainstream providers. A bridging loan was critical if their vision of an ethical online genetic testing marketplace, dedicated to speeding up diagnostic times, was to be realised. Thankfully, Foundation East delivered. GeneAdviser is up and running, improving access to genetic testing, accelerating treatment plans and attracting outside investment.
Here’s the GeneAdviser story so far …
“GeneAdviser was referred to us by Cambridge–based Cambridge Social Ventures. An early stage social enterprise with no trading history and no immediate servicing income, mainstream finance providers considered them too high risk to loan to. Whilst they were well set-up to begin a funding round, such processes take time. Working capital to enable the business to launch and prove its worth would be vital to them securing funding,” explains Foundation East’s loan advisor, Bob Shimmon.
“GeneAdviser ’s business plan was well researched, with excellent support and advice from mentor Paul Hughes. Directors were qualified and experienced within the sector and demonstrated a desire and commitment to establish a viable and sustainable enterprise. It was clear that early entry into this marketplace was crucial. I recommended the loan to our Loans Assessment Panel (LAP) and it was unanimously approved,” Bob adds.
So what, exactly, is GeneAdviser and why is it needed?
“Despite the fact that we already know the genetic causes of over 50% of rare diseases, the diagnostic process still takes an average of 6-8 years and some people never ever get an answer. Using genetic sequencing, this process can be speeded up to only a few months,” explains Jelena Aleksic, CEO and MD of GeneAdviser.
“GeneAdviser puts doctors in touch with clinical lab’s that can perform the sequencing and diagnostics. The tests can be ordered online as part of private genetic testing. We can simultaneously scan through the 5,000 plus genes connected with genetic diseases. We can identify anything with a genetic link, from predisposition to dementia and hearing loss, to very specific rare diseases. The range of applications is very wide: anything heritable that there is strong evidence for, we can arrange tests for,” she advises.
“There is such a strong need for this product that we wanted to get moving as quickly as possible. Foundation East’s loan came at a really key point because we were very close to the product launch but not quite there yet. We needed a little more time just to develop and launch before going to investors in order to have a really strong business case to present to them. It’s usually very difficult for start-ups, especially social business start-ups, to find bridge funding for this bit of business development, so getting the Foundation East loan was really important at the time. Now we’re very near to closing a funding round. We’re still running off the Foundation East money and would never have been able to get to this point without it. We’re really happy with the service they provided. Working with them has been great,” picks up Robert, CTO and head of product development for GeneAdviser.
“The loan application process is very user friendly, and fast. From making the application to receiving the money in our bank took just four weeks, which is amazing. If you go to investors it averages six months for first round, nine months for A series. Grant funding takes around six months too. When you’re starting up an area where speed to market is vital, you just can’t afford to wait that long. The fact that Foundation East can move so fast was really important to us,” Jelena explains.
“In terms of applying, Foundation East asks for a business plan and financials. It takes a while to fill in their business plan template but nothing too difficult and I don’t think that’s unreasonable. It’s a pretty standard process and it’s reassuring that they want to do their due diligence. It’s been really amazing – in fact pivotal to have access to their service,” she adds.
With three fulltime jobs and one part time job created, GeneAdviser is already making a social impact. With launch only happening in early February 2016 it’s not possible to assess further impact yet, but immediate goals include:
• Improving access to high quality genetic testing
• Educating people that genetic tests exist
• Raising awareness of genetic tests
• Collating evidence of the reduction in diagnostic times and associated impacts
In the field of rare diseases, it currently takes an average of six years to get a diagnosis in the UK. If a genetic test is applied early enough, it is possible to reduce this time to just a few months. The challenge is to reach the right people early and quickly enough to make them aware that this is possible. Foundation East’s loan is enabling GeneAdviser to achieve this.
“Genetic testing is a huge growth area and we are passionate to lead the way. Being ethical – doing things the right way – is really important and this sense of social responsibility has been part of our business model from the very beginning,” Robert explains.
“Selling the tests that are relevant and will really benefit the patient, not overselling, or claiming more than you can provide is essential. GeneAdviser’s business model is rigorous in ensuring that the best interests of patients are served,” adds Jelena.
“It is so important to have a Responsible Finance company in our region. Foundation East is providing an invaluable service to businesses with a social impact component in the East of England region. The bridge funding they provide is really crucial to businesses at the stage of development where they still need time and support to develop their key missions and process. I think, for a lot of social businesses, it’s really difficult to get past that point without the help of organisations such as Foundation East,” she concludes.
“An ethical model that puts the patients best interests (rather than profit) first, could set the tone for further developments in the field of genetic testing. There is no doubt that GeneAdviser's potential impact on people’s health and wellbeing, and on health costs, is immense. Foundation East is proud to be involved,” adds Bob.