We dug into the Chinese startup’s private market footprint and its ambitious plan to digitize your entire body.
When Chinese healthcare AI company iCarbonX launched in October 2015, it was touted as the “next Google in biotech.”
Much of the speculation and excitement surrounding the newly-launched company had to do with the founding team, which included former employees of a global leader in genome sequencing, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI). (To put BGI’s genomics prowess in perspective, in 2010, Nature reported that the company’s human genome sequencing output could theoretically surpass that of every genomics company and initiative in the United States combined.)
Jun Wang, founder and CEO of iCarbonX, had previously co-founded BGI. In addition, iCarbonX co-founder and chief scientist Yingrui Li also has a background at BGI, where he served as both chief scientist and CEO and continues to be a board member.
With a strong foothold in the genomics industry, and a formidable reputation in gene sequencing technology, iCarbonX raised its first round of disclosed funding less than a year after launch: a $154M Series A backed by Tencent Holdings and Vcanbio.
“…I don’t think there are any companies in the world doing the same thing as we do.” — Jun Wang, China Money Network
The round is the largest first equity round for a healthcare AI company to date, and resulted in instant unicorn status for iCarbonX, which received a $1B valuation.
iCarbonX’s ambition is to build a consumer-facing AI platform that is a one-stop shop for all things health and wellness — from skincare and nutrition recommendations to behavioral health and genetic analysis — with users unlocking different functionalities based on their level of membership. At the highest tier, users would even be offered health and life insurance.
iCarbonX’s vision of personalized healthcare is not something new, but its scale and scope are ambitious.
The focus here is highly individualized care made possible through massive data sets, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. iCarbonX is promising to mine health data at a speed and scale unmatched by its competitors. To this end, it is following an aggressive private market investment strategy, forming a “digital health alliance” with startups across the globe.
“I will try everything and go with whatever works. No one will be able to collect at the same scale of data that I am doing… A million is a starting point, not an endpoint.” — Jun Wang, Nature Biotechnology
The sheer scope of what the company is promising to build has drawn both awe and skepticism from industry insiders.
Here are some key takeaways from our analysis:
Mega aggregator of health data: An AI algorithm is only as good as the data you feed it, and iCarbonX recognized this early on. It has specifically focused on a number of US-based health data and personalized medicine startups — a focus that is likely driven by the lack of organized, digitized patient health records in China, as well as the company’s ultimate plans for expansion in countries including the United States.
Bringing US technologies to Chinese market: As part of the agreement to join iCarbonX’s “digital alliance,” US startups like SomaLogic and HealthTell will commercially launch their genetic tests in China. These efforts underpin China’s huge push to be a world leader in genomics and personalized medicine.
One-stop-shop for all things health: iCarbonX is taking an Amazon-for-health approach. Its platform is not one singular product, but an ecosystem of health services. Its AI and mining capabilities are meant to make it the central node through which all other applications are connected.
Potential roadblocks: One main source of skepticism comes from the nature of precision medicine itself. Deriving conclusive information from genetic tests remains a challenge. iCaronX also faces competition from other personalized medicine companies like Wuxi NextCODE and Human Longevity, as well as from startups attacking different aspects of the genomics spectrum and offering consumer products at lower prices.
iCarbonX raised $154M in Series A funding from Tencent Holdings and China-based gene engineering corporation Vcanbio in Q2’16.
Three months later, the company raised a follow-on Series A-II from investment bank China Bridge Capital in Q3’16. China Bridge Capital also announced plans to set up a $1.5B fund to acquire precision healthcare assets, doubling down on iCarbonX’s area of focus and further highlighting China’s continued expansion in precision medicine.
Expansion in Israel
In Q3’16, iCarbonX made its first private market investment by acquiring Israel-based image recognition startup Imagu Vision Technologies. iCarbonX Israel now leads the company’s computational biology and AI activities worldwide.
Two of the applications listed on Imagu’s website are particularly aligned with iCarbonX’s goals: a solution for measuring a human body via a standard webcam (an initiative initially focused on e-commerce applications) and segmentation of blood vessels (with a diagnostics application).
Imagu’s vision algorithms will be used for services like personalized skincare and fitness and diet recommendations (further indicated by the announcement that the algorithms will now be trained to recognize Chinese food). Additionally, its diagnostics solutions may find application in iCarbonX’s various personalized health initiatives (listed below).
iCarbonX is strategically bringing new technologies to the Chinese market, as well as accelerating its own plan to build the ultimate digital version of your biological self.
The company has made 7 strategic investments in 2017 YTD, with the same underlying theme of personalized medicine.