Since an early age, Wang Jun has been fascinated with the fundamental philosophical question: What is life?
The ex-CEO of Chinese genome sequencing giant BGI and founder of China’s highest-valued precision health start-up iCarbonX now aims to help people answer that question for themselves.
Wang entered Peking University, China’s top university, at the age of 16 after achieving the highest college entrance exam score in his hometown of Dongtai county, in Jiangsu province.
During the early 1990s, he pursued his interest in the fundamentals of intelligent life by studying artificial intelligence. In one experiment, he discovered that computers could actually figure out how a lady beetle maneuvers to catch food, exactly like it does in real life.
Watch A Video As iCarbonX’s Wang Jun Chats With China Money Network:
But working at the dawn of the personalized computer era, it became clear to Wang that computers could not think like a human – at least not yet – with the kind of computer powers and digital data available back then.
So Wang, born in 1976, turned his attention to another potential golden key to unlocking the secrets of life: Genomes. In 1999, after having studied artificial intelligence, computer science and biophysics, he participated in founding BGI, which represented China’s contribution to the US$3 billion Human Genome Project.
While at BGI, Wang managed three rounds of fundraising of about US$1 billion and led the company’s acquisition of a U.S. public company, Complete Genomics. He continued scientific research by participating in the effort to sequence and analyze the rice genome and the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus.
He left BGI in 2015 (though he remains a board member and shareholder) to start iCarbonX because he believes genes alone can’t decode life. "If I eat more, I become fat. If I run marathons, the body reacts differently. But my genome remains the same," he said.
iCarbonX’s goal is to help people understand and manage their lives better by combining genomics with every other health factor, including metabolites, bacteria and lifestyle choices, to create a digitalized form of life, an avatar or sorts, for everyone willing to pay at least US$30 for a basic product or much more for advanced solutions.
"I can use this digitalized form of me to see how my body will react to a cup of coffee (or a drug or daily exercises), for example," he explained.
To date, iCarbonX has invested US$400 million in seven companies to form a Digital Life Alliance, an information ecosystem designed to fulfill Wang’s vision.
Fives U.S. companies, SomaLogic, HealthTell, PatientsLikeMe, AOBiome, GALT, one Israeli company Imagu Vision and Chinese firm Tianjin Robustnique Corporation Ltd. each bring core technologies such as protein biomarker discovery, bacterial therapy and immunosignaturing to the alliance.
iCarbonX is also launching its first product, a digital health management platform named Meum. It will provide different levels of life data and dozens of applications to users for better control of their well-being.
With Chinese technology giant Tencent Holdongs Ltd. being iCarbonX’s major investor, the company is also developing a product that will be available to over 800 million active users of Tencent’s immensely popular Wechat app, Wang said.
Wang’s belief in the life-technology interface go beyond commercial concerns. He’s convinced that a digitalized form of individuals could ultimately be able to live on in silicon form even after their carbon-based human bodies perish. He has declared such ambitions many times, openly and privately.
It is too early to speculate on that, but there is at least one problem Wang faces trying to fulfill iCarbonX’s commercial promise. The start-up achieved a US$1 billion valuation in a short six-months after being established, making it the fastest technology unicorn in the world.
Even if Wang argues that iCarbonX is at its lowest valuation ever, he needs to figure out how much people will be willing to pay for that service, and how effectively a digitalized life could really alter human behavior.
Wang, for example, worked for 36 hours straight for the SARS virus sequencing project and "many many other times," he said. Would seeing how his digitalized life suffers from those long hours of work stop him? Probably not.