OIST-based biotech start-up achieves major milestones in first year in Okinawa

The team behind GenomeMiner, a biotechnology start-up taking part in the Innovation Square Startup Accelerator Program, is seeing business success both inside and outside the lab.

The team behind GenomeMiner, a biotechnology start-up supported by the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), is seeing business success both inside and outside the lab.

GenomeMiner was founded in Tokyo, and the entrepreneurs moved to Okinawa last year to take part in OIST’s Innovation Square Startup Accelerator Program. This program is primarily funded by the Okinawa Prefecture Government and seeks to support scientists who wish to launch their tech businesses in the prefecture. The primary goal of GenomeMiner is to develop a software platform to identify genes that are responsible for useful compounds in microbes that can be readily commercialized. Identified genes can be used for genetic engineering in microbes to increase compound production or generate novel compounds. The team had a close connection with Okinawa even before their move, having obtained microbe samples from the subtropical prefecture.

In their first major milestone since moving to Okinawa, the entrepreneurs have developed their own genetic engineering techniques. “We’ve just filed a provisional patent on a novel technique for performing genome insertions,” said Mr. Eli Lyons, Co-founder and CEO of GenomeMiner. He went on to explain that whilst the established and well-known system, CRISPR-Cas9, is very good at making DNA base pair deletions, a system that could do the opposite—targeted DNA insertions—is highly desired. “We’ve filed this provisional patent because the system we’ve developed is showing an exciting degree of success. Of course, it still needs further work before it can be commercialized. But this research has potential applications for therapeutics and genetic engineering.”

Eli Lyons, Co-founder and CEO of GenomeMiner
On top of this new technique, the team is also making progress on identifying novel compounds in microbes. Mr. Lyons stated that the sequencing facilities provided by OIST have been very useful for the team. They are currently sequencing 25 microbe strains at OIST, with the aim of finding lead candidate compounds for antibiotic resistant staph infection.
“Staph infections are infections on the skin, but can become serious and even lethal if untreated,” said Mr. Lyons. “They’re caused by staphylococcus bacteria, and some strains are resistant to antibiotics. So, it can be difficult to get treatment for this infection in hospital. Simply put, we need new antibiotics that the bacteria are not resistant to. The microbe strains we obtained have shown potential for producing antibiotic compounds. We’re going to analyze the sequences using the GenomeMiner bioinformatics platform to identify genes and compounds.”
Beyond the lab, Mr. Lyons has just closed additional angel investment from Indonesia, and plans to do further fundraising for a larger round of investment later this year. This would help the team to expand their research and development activities and allow them to start commercializing some of their biopesticide candidates. In addition, the Indonesian investors bring a strong network and knowledge of the Indonesian market. Mr. Lyons emphasized that Indonesia, as a developing economy, would provide great opportunities to launch some of their products.
 “We’ve made great progress with GenomeMiner,” concluded Mr. Lyons. “We hope that we can continue to expand to have positive impacts both in Okinawa and in the wider Asia-Pacific region.”

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