Melbourne genetics startup raises $525,000 from big-name backers including Culture Amp co-founder


Eugene co-founders Kunal Kalro, Kate Lanyon and Zoe Milgrom. Source: Supplied.

Genetics and health startup Eugene has secured $525,000 in funding to roll out its home genetic-testing and remote-consulting tech.

Speaking to StartupSmart, Eugene co-founder and chief Kunal Kalro explained the startup’s first testing kits are designed to help prospective parents understand how likely they may be to pass genetic disorders to their children.

Eugene’s testing kits are facilitated through an app, and customers are paired with a genetics counsellor to consult on the results.

Kalro has been working on the technology for a few years, but launched the startup in an official capacity, with co-founders Kate Lanyon and Zoe Milgrom, in December 2017.

“It’s been in development for a long time,” he says.

“Healthcare services are not super easy to bring to market.”

There are regulations to contend with, and in this space it’s important to make sure the product is working and “doing what it says it does”, he explains.

“People are making real-life choices,” he adds. “We want to make sure they do it right.”

It was only recently that the team had a product ready to take to the market, and felt it was time to secure some investment. And they got some big names on board.

Investors include Gus Balbontin, former chief technology officer at Lonely Planet and now a board member at Startup Vic, and Culture Amp co-founder Jon Williams.

Two venture partners at Giant Leap also invested, along with a partner at law firm Slater and Gordon and John McBain, founder of IVF Melbourne.

For the most part, the founders connected to their investors through existing circles. Some had already been following their progress closely, Kalro says.

“They really saw the importance of what we’re working on,” he explains.

“People were really convinced by the ‘why’ of what we were doing,” he adds.

Kunal Kalro, founder of Eugene. Source: Supplied.

Each of the investors bring more to the table than cash, Kalro says. In Williams, Eugene gets the experience of a founder who has recently gone through a huge growth period.

Williams was already one of Kalro’s “go-to people”, he says.

“To have someone who has been through that so recently is so helpful,” he adds.

Balbontin offers insight into storytelling and communication; Giant Leap brings expertise in social impact; and Slater and Gordon has done significant work in preventing genetic test results being used to bump up life insurance premiums.

Finally, McBain has been in this space for a long time, providing healthcare to everyday people, Kalro says.

“He knows the scene, he knows the people and has a wealth of experience,” Kalro says.

“The research is biased”

Initially, the plan is to use this funding to further distribute the testing kits, making genetic screening accessible all over Australia.

The startup also has plans to launch more tests in the next eight to 12 months, and “towards the end of the year we’re looking to expand internationally”, Kalro says.

Eventually, however, Eugene has big plans to “change the concept of what healthcare looks like”.

The startup was founded with a mission to “create a healthcare experience we wanted for ourselves and for our loved ones”, Kalro explains.

“That mission still holds true.”

According to Kalro, a lot of genetic research is biased, because some 85% of the genetics data available is from people of Northern European ancestry.

“When the data is biased the research is biased,” he says.

“So what comes out of the research is biased.”

That means there can be negative outcomes for people of colour, women and other minorities.

It’s not something Eugene can tackle alone, but Kalro hopes the startup can act as a catalyst for change.

“We’re looking to help address those gaps the best we can, best and most inclusive services we can,” he says.

We rarely hear about diversity from a healthcare perspective he adds, and part of the challenge is that “people aren’t aware of the problem”.

Ideally, Eugene will “help build that awareness, help more people see it’s an issue, and create a catalyst to create change”, he says.

For other early-stage startups looking to secure their first batch of funding, Kalro’s main piece of advice is to “work on a problem that matters”, he says.

“Investors want to invest in companies that are solving real problems,” he adds.

So, if there’s a real social challenge being addressed, and if the founder can speak passionately and intelligently about the solution, “everything else kind of falls into place”.

Equally, however, it’s all about the people, he says. And that goes both for bringing a team on board, building connections and relationships in the industry, and securing early investment.

“Investors are investing in people,” Kalro says.

“You need to build those connections and build those relationships. At the end of the day, that is everything.”

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