Biotech startup Nusantics, founded by Sharlini Eriza Putri, is one of Indonesia's few genomics tech firms. The company changed course rapidly last year to produce Covid-19 testing kits when they were needed most. Here’s what they learned
Before the pandemic, Sharlini Eriza Putri’s genomics technology company, Nusantics, was focused solely on the field of microbiome analysis, which is the study of the genome of all microorganisms.
In March last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic hit Indonesia, Putri and her co-founders knew they could help. Within days, they had produced a Covid-19 testing kit and contacted the government to offer their assistance.
After making the first generation of testing kits pro bono, at a time when the shortage of testing was at its most critical, Nusantics now runs the testing kit arm of its business as a social enterprise, reducing the cost of a testing kit from 2.5 million Indonesian Rupiah (US$180) to 900,000 (US$65).
We talk to Putri about the power of the microbiome, the challenges of working with governments and why she doesn’t expect the pandemic to go away anytime soon.
What is microbiome profiling?
More than 50 percent of our body is actually the microbiome. Microbiomes are bacteria, fungi, fibres as well as archaea. They live inside our body, in our gut, in our skin, in our skull—everywhere. And the diversity of the microbiome really shapes our immunity. For example, the latest research shows that when the gut microbiome composition is unbalanced, the severity of Covid-19 patients’ condition is worrying compared to [those with a balanced microbiome]. As we know, there are some people who are infected with the Covid-19 virus but they seem perfectly well. It's because their gut microbiome is in perfect balance.
If the microbiome is so important to our health, why are most people outside the world of medicine not familiar with it?
We always knew the microbiome existed, but we never had a way of measuring it until recently. We still know little about the composition of the microbiome because the technology of genomics, the sequencing technology, is still relatively new.
What's the benefit to knowing your microbiome profile?
You can predict your medical condition. For example, people with a certain profile of gut microbiome can predict whether they are prone to diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel syndrome and much more. It can also explain why some people have eczema, psoriasis or other inflammatory diseases. When we can measure the shifting of the tiniest part of the microbiome in our body, we can take action in advance and adjust a patient’s diet and lifestyle to prevent future diseases.
What is the potential of this technology in the wellness and the beauty industries?
The potential is huge. Innovation in skincare and vitamins has reached a plateau. And people are starting to realise that everyone is different; they aspire to have more personalised recommendations. This is where the microbiome [comes into play], because each person’s microbiome profile is different—it's like a fingerprint. So I think microbiome profiling is going to disrupt the health and wellness industry.
In March 2020, you pivoted quickly to producing Covid-19 testing kits. What was behind that decision?
We were protesting against our government, because we didn't understand why it took so long for the Indonesian government to scale up their testing capability. Because it’s our competency, we knew that producing Covid-19 test kits was not that hard. So that's why we were voluntary at first and produced kits pro bono.
What challenges did you face once you decided to pivot the business?
The challenge was to convince the government to work together with us. We were able to make a working prototype, but we had to quickly scale up and produce a huge amount in order to offer the minimum testing needed for the population of Indonesia. So the main challenge for us was to collaborate with the government. It’s an unusual situation when a startup works together with the government, so a lot of communication and networking had to be done.
Each person’s microbiome profile is different—it's like a fingerprint. I think microbiome profiling is going to disrupt the health and wellness industry
How did you reach a good working relationship quickly?
By explaining Nusantic's interest as transparently as possible and setting up clear boundaries of what can be done and what cannot be done, what we can communicate and what we cannot communicate. The first generation of kits were completely pro bono. For the second generation of kits, and now the third generation, which we just launched, we take some royalties.
In January you announced an undisclosed Series A round led by East Ventures. Will you use those funds to continue developing your testing kits?
We will use the funds to complete our laboratory facilities and take a significant amount of human microbiome samples. We are planning to make an index that we can use to measure our relative microbiome diversity. The funding wasn't for the Covid-19 testing kits.
Does that mean you are confident that the need for testing kits will slow down and you can soon just focus on the microbiome side of the business?
Oh, definitely not! I expect the pandemic will last, I think, the next three years. And then, after that, maybe we are going to have one or two peaceful years before another pandemic or epidemic. But we don't think that any pandemic will hinder our microbiome business. In fact, this pandemic has given us momentum, as people are starting to be more critical in answering what immunity is—and the microbiome is closely correlated with immunity, as I mentioned. It’s linked to the immune system in ways that we still don't understand, so there’s still a lot of work to be done.
There was less than a year between your seed funding round and Series A. What's the secret to that fast growth?
We put a lot of trust in our team, that's number one. Secondly, our business is consistent in terms of our vision—every day we aspire to make an impact on the environment. Often, sustainability and business don’t go hand-in-hand, because one is for profit and the other is for humanity. But with microbiome research, we can do both. So that's what makes our team go all out, because they believe that everything we do at Nusantics is for humanity as well as for profit. There are no contradictions between the heart and mind of our team. That's why we can go that fast. Most importantly, we had some luck, because the test kits generated some profit for us and gained real traction, which helped us fundraise that fast.
What is the link between the microbiome and the environment?
We have to have a diverse microbiome in our body. And how do we get a diverse microbiome? It's as simple as living in a diverse natural environment and having a diverse natural diet. And in order to have that diverse natural diet, we have to eat a variety of foods, and that comes from the variety of plants and animals that are naturally living in Indonesia. So we have to protect biodiversity. We have to reduce the incidence of forest fires, for example, and environmental destruction. We have to keep that biodiversity so we can balance our microbiome.