Alpha Unicorn iCarbonX Eyes 800M WeChat Users To Build Global Precision Health Giant

A: That decision was made last June. But I didn’t really leave. I’m still a board member and a shareholder (of BGI). It was just that I didn’t continue the CEO position, as the current bossiness model of BGI (is different from my goal).

What BGI does is reading and sequencing gene. But my goal since my very young age is to understand life, which requires more than just decoding genes. We need multiple information, from genes to proteins, metabolites, blood types and many others.

So I decided to move on with founding iCarbonX to trying to understand life. Also, it was time. When BGI started, it took US$100 million to read one genome. Now it’s a couple of hundred dollars per genome. It’s really time for everybody to sequence their genes and starting to know their life (in a more smart way).

Q: What are some other differences between BGI and iCarbonX?

A: The data from BGI and iCarbonX is different. Life is not just DNA. DNA is just a baseline. You need a lot of data to describe your life status, including protein, metabolites, DNA methylation, bacteria, and more. All those things are not genome. If I eat more, I become fat. If I run marathons, the body reacts differently. But my genome remains the same. So people’s life style choices actually make the final impact on your life.

Q: Are there any other companies doing similar things as iCarbonX? Is Deep Genomics a comparable?

A: No, I don’t think Deep Genomics is doing similar things with us. Well, this idea is not really unique, in a way. Everybody knows each individual is different and wants to develop tailored solutions to each individual.

But how to do it? How (we) digitalize you and provide personalized products and services to help you better manage life is, well, I don’t think there are any companies in the world doing the same thing as we do.

Q: Can you share a little bit more details about your first product which will be launched soon?

A: On January 5, we are announcing different data products helping you to digitize yourself. Based on those data, we will provide different applications, which will cover skin care, nutrition, healthcare and medical care.

We will launch dozens, and eventually hundreds and thousands, of applications based on the data that we will generate for you.

Q: So, who are the key target audience of the products. It can’t be everyone?

A: Well, it will be everyone. It is different levels of data products representing different resolutions of knowing yourself. The lowest level will only cost you US$30 to US$50 per person, so everybody could afford it to digitize yourself. The product will cover everything from skin care, nutrition, healthcare and medical care.

The high-end product will cost you a lot more, as we will generate all the full information of yourself. The cost for that is very high as it is more valuable.

Q: Since you mentioned the U.S. dollar, will this product to launched to potential users globally?

A: Yes, it will be global, and for Chinese users as well.

Q: Do you have any specific targets, like how much revenue you want to generate in a certain time period, and how many users you want to acquire?

A: Like I said last year, we will accumulate data for one million individuals in the next three to five years.

Q: How much data is required for one million users?

A: It depends on the type of product, but you can think of around one terabyte or more of data for each individual.

Q: What policies do you have in place to protect information privacy?

A: Well, this information is as important, or more important, than the information (you store) in a bank. Every individual will sign a consent form to agree upon how we use the data. The data will be kept in a very secured way. We are working with Tencent and Huawei to (ensure data security).

Q: What kind of technology are you using to analyze these data?

A: There are three basic assumptions: first, every form of life could be digitalized. Second, every digitalized life could be modeled. So this modeled form is what we call artificial intelligence, which is a digital form and silicon-based you (in comparison to a carbon-based you). I can use this digitalized form of me to see how my body will react to a cup of coffee (or a drug and any other changes), for example.

Third, all digitalized life could be networked. They could be linked together, communicate with each other and doing more interesting stuff.

Q: What are some potential regulatory risks while developing your products?

A: If we do a lot of medical care products such as diagnosis and treatment, I think we need to have CFDA (China Food and Drug Administration) or FDA (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approval. That’s for sure.

Q: In September, iCarbonX acquired Israeli company Imagu Vision. What’s your plan integrating their technology?

A: (Imagu Vision) is an AI company. The two co-founders also founded a great bioinformatics company, Compugen. The founders know both artificial intelligence and biological data. They are one of the best in the world at biological data analysis and regulation, and great for (our) AI core technology building.

On January 5, we are going to announce a US$400 million investment in five U.S. companies for iCarbonX’s ecosystems, data generations and applications.

Q: That’s a lot of money for acquisitions for a young company. The biggest issue of any acquisition is integration. How do you plan to execute post-acquisition management?

A: Well, I did it before. BGI’s acquisition of Complete Genomics worked well. For acquisitions to work, you need a common shared vision and trust. I think we have both.

Q: Since iCarbonX has bought an Israeli company and plans to buy five U.S. companies, I wonder what is the divide between Chinese and non-Chinese users?

A: We have yet figured it out. We hope to have more than one million users, obviously. It could be three million or more, as we grow.

Q: What’s your international expansion plan besides these acquisitions?

A: We already have a U.S. base, and we are thinking if our Israeli base could become our European base. We are all thinking about (internationalization) right now.

Q: Globalization is a risky path for Chinese companies, as few have achieved real success?

A: No, I think BGI did pretty well in the international market. Plus, I don’t see iCarbonX as a Chinese company. We see it as a global company. Our goal is never just one country. We are working on all these diseases for humankind.

Q: The company has raised around US$200 million in venture funding already. Do you have any further fundraising plans?

A: Not recently, but we are preparing something in the future.

Q: As we discussed how the company started with a very high valuation…

A: I think it’s the lowest valuation in the company’s history.

Q: Ha, I guess you just answered my question. You are not afraid of a valuation trap then?

A: Like I said, if you look at iCarbonX, I think currently it is undervalued. The future value will be much higher.

Q: As Tencent is your lead investor, what are some areas of potential cooperation between you two?

A: Tencent has the Wechat 2C (to-consumer) platform with more than 800 million users, so we will have to use it in a smart way.

Q: So, I will be able to create a digitalized me on my Wechat app?

A: Well, we are building up something right now, yes.

Q: As you build this company, what is the biggest challenge you face right now?

A: It’s not an easy task. We have to start everything from scratch. Technology is new, markets are new, product development is new, and the AI algorithm is new. But we do have a great team, and we need to work hard to reach our goal.

About Wang Jun:
Wang Jun is founder and CEO of iCarbonX. He received a B.S. degree in artificial intelligence and Ph.D. in bioinformatics from Peking University. In 1999, Wang co-founded BGI and later managed US$1 billion fundraising and led the company’s acquisition of Complete Genomics.

(Pan Yue also contributed to the production of this podcast.)

Nina Xiang
Nina Xiang is the co-founder and managing editor overseeing editorial content and product development at CMN. Before founding CMN in 2011, Nina worked at BusinessWeek magazine in Beijing and Institutional Investor magazine in New York, writing about business and financial services. While in New York, she also served as part-time correspondent for Shanghai's financial television channel, China Business Network, as well as China Radio International, China's national English-language radio network.