One early morning almost four years ago, two world-renowned Hong Kong clinician-scientists in gastrointestinal disease sat down in a coffee shop at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin to discuss a subject that is not considered acceptable in such a setting: Human waste. Over a napkin, Francis Chan Ka-leung and fellow professor Siew Ng sketched out their idea to found a business based on an unorthodox-sounding idea: using faecal material from a healthy person to restore the balance of good and bad bacteria in a patient’s gut microbiome. “Our initial plan was to come up with a poop company,” said Francis Chan Ka-leung, the dean of medicine at Chinese University of Hong Kong. The concept of a faecal transplant, which actually dates back to fourth-century China, has gained scientific support and found its way into clinical practice in recent years, creating the market opportunity Chan and Ng identified. Armed with their business plan, the two doctors started approaching venture capitalists and family offices to raise funds. Then they faced a tough question: “What is your business model?” Race for innovation: a peek into Hong Kong’s secret technology weapon “I was kind of shocked,” said Chan, who has spent 30 years in academic research but not a single day running a business. “What do you mean by business model? I have shown you all my scientific papers. Not good enough?” Unsurprisingly, the fundraising plan failed, as investors were not convinced the idea could be scaled up into a compelling business. Today, Chan and Ng are the co-founders of a biotechnology company called GenieBiome. Their ambitions have grown well beyond bottled faeces, and their pitch has evolved too. GenieBiome aims to turn microbiome research into treatments for a variety of diseases, capitalising on the US$3 billion global human microbiome market “with groundbreaking technologies that help change people’s lives”, Chan said. Under the brand G-NiiB, the company’s products include prediction tests for colon cancer and autism, as well as novel supplements to boost immunity against Covid-19 and improve gut health. “Whether one day we will be listed, or we will be acquired by others, I have no idea,” Chan said. But one day he hopes to “tell the people in Hong Kong that, wow, this big global company was made in Hong Kong, made by the academics in Hong Kong”. Headquartered in the Hong Kong Science Park, the company now has 200 employees, half of whom work on research and development, and also has offices in China, Singapore and the UK. GenieBiome has raised US$11 million in two rounds of fundraising in 2021. What is the gut microbiome? Five simple steps to keep yours healthy The human gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. It plays an important role in health by helping control digestion and interacting with the immune system and many other aspects of health. The microbiome market is expected to grow 22.95 per cent annually, according to Data Bridge Market Research, indicating a rise from US$599 million in 2021 to US$3.13 billion in 2029. Major players include DuPont, Merck & Company, Metabiomics, Seres Therapeutics and Yakult Honsha. GenieBiome’s diagnostic test for colon cancer is now available in the Hong Kong market and a diagnostic test for autism will be available by the fourth quarter of this year, Chan said. The company is working on launching the colon-cancer test in the mainland China market. “We have already submitted our documents to mainland China,” he said. “And hopefully the regulatory approval will be available sometime next year.” Since GenieBiome moved to the Science and Technology Park, Chan said Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks, which operates the Science Park, has provided a lot of support, such as well-equipped lab facilities and advice on the commercialisation of its products. Your gut microbiome defends against Covid-19, so keep it healthy “The government has come up with new funds to encourage university academics to to try out their own start-ups, to partner with the industry to develop new biotechnology companies,” he said. “At the same time, the design at the park has provided a really wonderful environment.” He believes more university academics will become entrepreneurs with support from the universities. However, Chan said the Hong Kong market is too small, and the regulatory hurdles to entering the mainland China market are formidable. Mil Mill, Hong Kong’s science park make breakthrough in moving recycling plant For example, the company wants to launch its US-approved product in China, but has to go through a separate application process, which is time-consuming and very expensive, he said. “We need to streamline or loosen the regulatory approval process,” Chan said. he suggested using the Greater Bay Area as a regional office of China’s drug regulator, the National Medical Products Administration, “such that all scientific discoveries from the Greater Bay Area, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong Province, can have this kind of fast-track approval, so that our products can go into the market as soon as possible”. The two doctors also lead a separate research unit, Microbiota Center, in the Science Park, which is enrolling 100,000 mother and baby pairs in the Greater Bay Area for microbiome preservation and research in the next couple of years.