Science-fuelled innovations and technology are playing a surging role in our quest for healthier, happier lives. We look at three trends currently turning heads in Hong Kong’s wellness sphere, starting with Hong Kong-based Prenetics, one of the world’s largest genetic testing and health technology companies.
Once upon a time, that cursory annual full-body check-up at the family doctor might have been sufficient to put most busy city dwellers’ minds at ease about their health. Not anymore. As our attitude towards health and wellness rapidly shifted over the past year, so did our appetite for state-of-the-art, innovative, and accessible solutions that could help us optimise all aspects of our physical and mental health.
This has coincided with the astronomical boom of the US$4.5 trillion global wellness economy and a US$752.88 billion biotechnology space that’s expected to grow at a stunning compound annual growth of 15.83 percent. The world, it seems, is eager to take their health back into their own hands – and thanks to a surge of technological and scientific advancements backed by big businesses and startups alike that have only been expedited by the pandemic, now they can.
THE GENE GAME
At the fore of this movement is Hong Kong-based Prenetics, one of the world’s largest genetic testing and health technology companies. Co-founded by CEO and entrepreneurial powerhouse Danny Yeung (alongside chief scientific officer Lawrence Tzang), it launched its flagship product, Circle DNA, only two years ago. The at-home genetic testing kit offers more than 500 reports across a wide range of categories such as diet and exercise, ancestry, disease risks (including a list of cancers), drug responses to personality, behavioural traits, and stress tolerance – all via a simple saliva swab that’s sent to Prenetics’ Hong Kong laboratory, where results can be delivered in around two weeks.
“When I first started the company back in 2014, I always believed that the more consumers know about themselves individually in terms of their health data, the more they can act on it,” says Yeung, who’s spirited yet easy-going when we meet in his North Point office, which sits just a few glass windows away from Prenetics’ world-class laboratory. “I was 34 and now I’m 42. In my mid-30s, I became increasingly aware of how important health was, and I wanted to utilise my entrepreneurial career and do something in health to create a bigger impact. To be honest, in 2014, the market wasn’t ready. But I felt that if we laid the foundation and infrastructure, [it could work].”
And it has. The flagship product has resonated around the world, selling more than 130,000 test kits to date in local and international markets. Among a sea of competitors, Circle DNA has stood out for its breadth of analyses that span the spectrum from medical to lifestyle, utilising a diagnostic technology called whole-exome sequencing that offers greater analytical accuracy (up to 99.9 percent) as well as an emphasis on consumer data protection. Most of all, it’s helped many overcome the sense of powerlessness often associated with hereditary health risks. What Yeung is saying, and what global scientists have discovered, is that while DNA is inherently static and unchangeable, the way genes are selected to express themselves can be dynamic. A person’s lifestyle choices can, in fact, have an enormous impact on deciding which genes are activated.
“The power of epigenetics is that DNA isn’t a certainty,” says Yeung. “You have this data and what you do with it is dependent on the individual. For example, I have an increased genetic risk of colon cancer – that’s why I’ve cut out red meat from my diet. If you know you have an increased risk, there are things you can do to prevent or delay it from happening. You don’t know what you don’t know. In this case, knowledge really is power.”
That is a phrase that has anchored Yeung’s approach throughout the rapid evolution of Prenetics, especially over the past two years, in what Yeung calls “a natural transition” as the company has pivoted into one of the leading (and only) providers of “rapid, cost-effective” at-home Covid tests – essentially bringing the power of knowledge from hospitals and clinics into the home. After Project Screen, the company’s first PCR laboratory at-home test, launched last year and delivered tests for the likes of English Premier League footballers and international airports, Yeung and his team realised they could do more.
More than a year ago, Prenetics started working with the University of Oxford, resulting in the newly launched HealthPod. This reusable, rapid molecular at-home detection system (via a lower nasal swab and single-use capsules) fits in your palm. In just 20 minutes, it delivers lab-quality accuracy when detecting infectious diseases, starting with Covid-19 (including the Delta variant). It’s set to include influenza and STDs in future. Having received CE-IVD Marking, HealthPod is ready to roll out across Southeast Asian countries as well.
“The overall trend we’re seeing is the ability to do a lot of the tests on monitoring health systems and your vitals in the home – essentially, the decentralisation of healthcare,” says Yeung. “This is going to be a key trend moving forward, which Covid has accelerated by five to ten years.”
For Yeung, who credits his entrepreneurial spirit to his humble beginnings (“I’m from an average family in terms of wealth; everything I did I was trying to make it for myself and be in control of my family’s wellbeing”) and his early days working at a baseball card shop (“It helped me understand business”), staying at the top of the game is a matter of constant innovation and thinking about what’s next. Just last month, Prenetics announced that it’s gone public in a US$1.25 billion merger with Adrian Cheng’s US-listed Artisan Acquisition Corp. Prenetics also has a host of industry-disrupting products in the pipeline, including a non-invasive colon cancer stool DNA test that can identify the early stages of colon cancer.
“Our mission has always been to give everyone the power to be in control of their own health,” says Yeung. “I’ve always felt that we are bringing healthcare closer to the patient. We’re very excited about our current progress.”