Quest for Research Freedom Fuels African Biotech Boom
Quest for Research Freedom Fuels African Biotech Boom

Quest for Research Freedom Fuels African Biotech Boom

Tired of dancing to the tunes of international funders, and doubtful that long-promised national grants will come, a handful of African biomedical scientists have turned to private investors to bankroll their dreams of autonomy in the lab.

Linda Nordling
Jul 1, 2021

ABOVE: Staff at genomics company 54gene work in a lab at the company’s Nigerian headquarters. 

Returning to his native Ghana after a postdoc in the United Kingdom, Yaw Bediako thought he had his future pretty much mapped out. “I felt everything was leading me to the usual model of academic research—full professor before I’m forty-five, with my own research group, a good grant portfolio, and students working for me,” the immunologist says. 

But soon after his return in 2019, he began to feel stifled. Although his workplace, the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) in Accra, was one of the country’s foremost research institutions, its parent institution, the University of Ghana, had what Bediako experienced as cumbersome bureaucracy ill-suited for a hungry young scientist. And he describes a “crushing pressure” to obtain foreign research grants, which he says he needed to supplement his meager university salary and support his family, but which he thought did not respond to Ghana’s most urgent health challenges. “Your destiny is not in your hands because you have to answer a call set by organizations that are not in your continent.” 

Yaw Bediako, cofounder and CEO of Yemaachi

Many of Bediako’s colleagues told him that until Ghana’s government put more of its own money into research, this lack of autonomy would persist. However, Bediako was not ready to pin his hopes on the government fulfilling its decade-old promise to create a national science fund. “African funding needs to happen, but it definitely won’t happen overnight, and I don’t have time to wait,” he says. “My best years will be behind me by the time Ghana has a [US National Institutes of Health]-level funding instrument driving local innovation.” 

So, in June last year, Bediako registered Yemaachi, a high-tech startup that he hopes will attract private investors to fund research into cancer detection and treatment strategies for Africans. It leverages one of Africa’s most valuable scientific resources—its genetically varied population—to understand the growing cancer scourge on the continent, and Bediako tells The Scientist that he believes it’s his best shot at the research autonomy he craves. “I’ve gotten to the point where I believe that the next step in Africa’s evolution in science and innovation has to be private biotech,” he says. “That is the way we begin to pull investment into our research.”

The next step for African science

Yemaachi is just one of a number of health biotech companies with a strong research focus that have emerged in Africa in recent years. “Ten, even five years ago, there was very little biotech investment in Africa,” says Delali Attipoe, chief operating officer at 54gene, an African genomics company headquartered in Nigeria and Washington, DC. That interest has definitely grown in the last couple of years, she says.

One reason for this has been the mounting global interest in Africa’s diverse human genetic resource. Scientists increasingly believe this diversity could hold the keys to better healthcare treatments—not just for Africans, but for people around the world. 

Launched in the spring of 2019, 54gene aims to create Africa’s largest biobank. Within its first few months, the company had secured $4.5 million in seed funding from investors based in the US. By this past March, it had obtained nearly 100,000 biological samples that it aims to sequence to boost the representation of Africans in global genomic datasets. The samples come mainly from Nigerians, but 54gene’s founders want to expand into other African countries. “Africa as a whole is ripe with opportunity,” Attipoe says. “If people are still figuring that out, they are already behind.”

Delali Attipoe, COO of 54gene 

The ongoing pandemic has only intensified international interest in Africa’s biotech. “COVID has brought healthcare to the fore, and people are looking to invest in healthcare in Africa,” Bediako says. His company received funding from Google to sequence SARS-CoV-2 variants in Ghana and track their evolution, and has entered into an agreement with another Ghanaian startup, MPharma, to equip Yemaachi’s lab to do COVID-19 testing. 

E-health, which encompasses telemedicine and other digital health applications, has been a particular magnet for investors. The sector was one of the fastest-growing investment areas for African startup companies in 2020, according to a report released in January by Disrupt Africa, a news site that monitors the continent’s tech startup landscape. Within just a few months in 2020, some of these e-health companies had grown to a size they had expected to reach in five years, says Tom Jackson, cofounder of Disrupt Africa. He adds that this boom could have positive knock-on effects on research-intensive biotech startup activity as well. “Growth in e-health funding should stimulate growth in biotech as more people get into the space and see the impact,” Jackson says.

54gene itself has benefited from the recent investment boom. In April 2020, the company secured a $15 million venture capital injection—one of last year’s largest health startup investments in Africa—from Adjuvant Capital, a life sciences fund backed by the International Finance Corporation, drug company Novartis, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. And late last year, 54gene partnered with Illumina to build a genomics facility in Lagos, Nigeria, so that 54gene can do its own genome sequencing on African soil. 

Securing the right partnerships

Both Attipoe and Bediako say that finding the right investors and partners is crucial to the success of their startups. Medical research has a troubled history on the continent, especially when funded from abroad. In the 20th century, a culture of distrust grew between researchers and the public, fueled in part by experiments carried out without participants’ consent and trials of medicines that locals would later struggle to access. 

As a company with roots in both the US and Nigeria, 54gene has been careful to only pair up with investors who understand the importance of carrying out research activities in Africa, with African scientists, as opposed to shipping samples abroad to be analyzed, says Attipoe. “It’s finding those right investors that will understand that.” 

Bediako agrees. “Somebody told me that to succeed I needed to involve a white founder. I have taken it upon me to prove them wrong,” he says. “The leadership has to be African forever. If you come in and invest, you won’t change that. It’s part of the brand of Yemaachi.”

In the spirit of intra-African partnerships, Bediako has signed an agreement to collaborate with Kelly Chibale, a Zambian chemist who in 2010 founded H3D, a private-public drug development partnership based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. A pioneer in Africa-based drug development, Chibale says Bediako is right that African scientists can’t expect their future funding boosts to come from African governments alone. “The government can provide some funding, but for me the most important thing is the right environment for private sector investment,” he says.     

Global investment in African health-tech ventures has totaled more than $160 million since the beginning of 2015, according to a report by Disrupt Africa.
* Data for 2020 only includes the first half of the fiscal year.

Yemaachi researchers will work on H3D’s African Liver Project, which seeks to understand how commonly used drugs—the majority of which have been tested mostly on Caucasians—are metabolized by Africans. “H3D has extensive capacity to understand differences in drug metabolism, but these differences are going to be driven in large part by host genetics,” Bediako says. “That is where Yemaachi comes in.” The collaboration will try to explain why some cancer drugs and other therapeutics seem to have different efficacy or side-effect profiles in some African populations. “The partnership will allow us to collect samples from both West and Southern Africa, and we hope to expand to other parts of Africa in due course,” he says.

Chibale and Bediako both say they believe that private biotech plays an important role in creating jobs for scientists on the continent. At the moment, Chibale says, there is a lot of financial support from international donors for training African PhDs. But there’s less support when it comes to creating employment for those people, he says. Bediako agrees. WACCBIP, with which Bediako remains affiliated, exists to train the next generation of scientists for Ghana, he says, but “Yemaachi is where that next generation will want to go and work.”

Looking to the future

It’s unclear how sustainable Africa’s biotech growth will be in the long term. The emergence of new venture capital that seems to recognize the role of biotech as an economic growth tool is a positive sign, as long as investors realize they must be in for the long haul, says Siya Ntutela, a biotech innovation consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa, and deputy chair of the International Council of Biotechnology Associations based in Washington, DC. “These new funds will most likely survive as long as they understand the dynamics of biotech and the patience required to nurture these investments.”

The leadership has to be African forever. If you come in and invest, you won’t change that.

—Yaw Bediako, Yemaachi

Jackson at Disrupt Africa expects a “slight reality check” for Africa’s health startup sector in 2021. Growth will be tempered by the expected return to a more normal way of life post–COVID-19, he says, and there are other challenges. “The long-term prognosis is good, but e-health and biotech companies still need to prove that they can have impact at scale, often serving low-income populations, while also generating the type of returns that will keep investors happy.” 

For Bediako, that still sounds better than the limited options he says he would have had as an academic. This year, he found out that a prestigious grant he’d been selected for that would have paid up to £150,000 (around US$ 200,000) per year for two years to cover his salary, research, and overheads at WACCBIP had been canceled due to the UK government slashing its development research budget. “Public funding is down because governments are spending money on looking after people, but private businesses are making lots of money,” he says. 

As for his academic colleagues, Bediako says he thinks that private investment in today’s biotech industry could help them, too, in the long run. “My hope is that by building a private research ecosystem you find ways to attract money into research on the continent, and that some of it will find its way back to universities,” he says. “I hope it will raise the profile of research in Africa.”