Atlas Biomed produce direct to consumer tests to analyse DNA and gut microbiomes. Since setting up their HQ to London in 2016, they have expanded to over ten EU countries and most recently to Canada. Here CEO Sergey Musienko talks about the challenge of adapting their products to different countries, the role of MedCity in the company’s development and why they decided to sample the bacterial communities on Europe’s monuments!
According to Sergey Musienko, the real value behind Atlas Biomed is not in its state-of-the art DNA and gut microbiome tests but in the interpretations and recommendations that it provides. Drawing on their in-house expertise and the ever-increasing body of scientific literature in the area of DNA sequencing, these insights are made available through the Atlas Biomed app which allows consumers to make informed decisions about their health behaviours and lifestyle.
“We’re probably the only company in the world that is currently offering both tests in a direct to consumer format,” says Atlas Biomed CEO Sergey Musienko. “This helps us to build a very unique database of correlations between human DNA and the microbiome which could potentially provide insights into how these markers can be applied to better predict certain conditions and take preventative measures. In a nutshell this is Atlas’ mission: giving people the option to make disease preventable.”
The idea for Atlas Biomed originated when Sergey was part of the Global Solutions Programme (GSP) at the Singularity University in 2011. The programme helps entrepreneurs accelerate the growth of their startups to achieve global impact and Sergey was part of the biomedical track. “At the time everyone was talking about how personalised medicine would be the new frontier in healthcare,” he explains. “And many people believed that human genome sequencing would provide all the solutions in this area. But this didn’t happen and it became clear that we needed additional data alongside the human genome to reach these goals. This was the main idea behind Atlas Biomed: to build an ecosystem of data around an individual that would allow these personalised predictions to happen and to work.”
Moving to London
After Sergey finished at Singularity he returned to Russia and developed the idea further, gathering together a professional team who were scientists, doctors and IT specialists. A bioinformatician by training, Sergey knew the mix of skills he would need to develop the company in terms of data collection, interpretation and communication. “I often liken the make-up of our team to the microbiome,” he adds. “It’s very important to have a diverse bacterial community to perform an abundance of functions in the gut and it is the same with our business. You need to have a very diverse team with different specialisms including bioinformatics, human genetics and microbiome but also user experience and design, IT development and sales and marketing. This all needs to be in the same environment to ensure success.”
The DNA test was the first product developed by Atlas Biomed, followed by the microbiome test, which uses the same technology to sequence bacterial DNA in the gut. Having developed these two products to a stage where they could be marketed, Atlas Biomed decided to set up their HQ in London in 2016.
“We were considering different cities,” Sergey recalls. “And were assessing them on the basis of multiple parameters, including access to capital, size of the local market, regulatory environment and the scientific community that was within reach. We ranked the different cities by these parameters and, in our case, London was number one so we decided to move here. I would say this decision was pivotal in getting our company to where it is today.”
MedCity involvement and London’s entrepreneurial community
Atlas Biomed got in touch with MedCity in 2017, a year after they moved to London when they were starting the approval process for their products with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulation Agency (MHRA). At that point in their development they tapped into MedCity’s knowledge around the life sciences sector in the UK and the various systems they needed to negotiate, including regulation, patenting and reimbursement.
“It was fantastic to get such well-informed insight into these complex areas,” says Sergey. “Particularly in terms of working with the NHS. We realise there is still a long way to go but we really hope one day our products might become part of the NHS and it is so valuable to understand early on how best to approach the NHS and what to put in place in terms of clinical trials and evidence.”
More recently MedCity have been helping Atlas Biomed with their expansion to new markets “We still meet with MedCity about twice a year to provide updates on our development,” says Sergey. “And each time, we learn more and get more valuable advice. We really appreciate what they are doing for us, and the whole industry.”
Since moving to London, the company has also discovered an additional benefit to being based in the UK capital which is the entrepreneurial community that exists, particularly in the area of microbiome sequencing. “There are so many companies and organisations that are interested and willing to cooperate and partner,” says Sergey. “I find it fascinating that in London there is demand from both the general public and from companies trying to honestly and very sincerely build better products to help people maintain better gut health. The community in London is significant, probably the largest for gut health, and we are very happy to be part of this.”
Lab partners and clinical trials
From the start Atlas Biomed have outsourced their DNA extraction and sequencing to a certified EU laboratory in the Netherlands, accredited with ISO 15189. Atlas tests use the latest DNA sequencing technology from Illumina, a world leader in the field of molecular analysis. “We see a lot of potential for new technologies to be introduced to the market,” says Sergey. “Meaning the throughput of machines will go up and prices will go down, which in turn means we can do more with the data. For example with the gut microbiome we can start analysing viruses and yeast as well as bacteria so we will be able to consider the whole metagenome.”
The company are involved in about a dozen clinical trials with both academic institutions and companies working in the nutrition and probiotic field. For the industry studies Atlas are providing their tests to investigate how an intervention alters the microbiome. The academic trials are more focussed around certain conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis and the causality behind these in terms of the microbiome “We are hoping to have some results next year,” says Sergey.
Atlas Biomed have also been doing their own research with a citizen science angle, comparing the bacterial communities on well-known monuments around the world. “It was a mix of PR, curiosity and fun,” says Sergey. “As scientists we’re always curious about all kinds of things and we were discussing the fact that people often rub monuments for luck. So we thought, since we travel so much, why don’t we take samples from well-known monuments and see if any particular bacteria are associated with luck. The research didn’t show that direct association but it did indicate that the monuments that can be walked upon have very different bacteria to those that were more difficult to reach.”
Scaling up and transparency
Their ability to take samples from monuments across Europe demonstrates that Atlas Biomed is becoming an increasingly international company. The markets for both tests are growing and, according to Sergey, the microbiome market has a particularly large potential for growth because it can also be therapeutic and allow customers to interact with their microbiome.
In their HQ in London they have about 15 employees but altogether they employ over 70 people across all the countries where they work, including the new market in Canada which started in June this year. “It’s not easy to scale up because every country is a completely new market,” says Sergey. “And they all have different aspects such as the regulatory environment, competitors, logistics and marketing. It’s a learning process and you have to enjoy it, which we do.”
However, one of the factors that does seem to stay the same in every market is the level of transparency that Atlas Biomed seek to provide to both the public, the medical community and the regulatory agencies about their products and what they can deliver. Soon after they arrived in the UK, Atlas Biomed sought approval from the MHRA and Sergey believes it is good practice to be in constant contact with the regulators to inform them about the company’s work and product pipeline including how they test samples, keep data and manage customer privacy.
“I think these are all great questions that have to be answered very transparently,” says Sergey. “And that is the main philosophy we have behind our products and behind Atlas – we want to state how we do things openly and transparently for customers and partners. It helps a lot in terms of credibility, but I think it’s just about answering the questions that people have naturally. For me this isn’t extraordinary or outstanding. It’s just the way of doing normal business.”