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DNA testing services are nothing new. Malaysia is already home to a couple of such startups, including Advanx Health and myPreciseDNA.

Another homegrown company that has popped up in this sector is Nutrigene. While Nutrigene’s DNA analysis technology isn’t exactly novel, what sets this business apart is how they apply it.

Beyond things like ancestry or health, Nutrigene specifically looks at DNA in the context of educational and developmental insights.

“Unlike traditional health-focused DNA tests that primarily target adult health markers, our approach is tailored specifically for children, focusing on areas crucial for their growth and learning,” the founder and CEO, Dr Wenxi Choo, explained.

Here’s what that means and how it works.  

Empowering parents

Originally from Klang, Dr Wenxi Choo’s academic journey began with a degree in Medicinal Chemistry, but she became fascinated with the world of nutrigenomics at a conference.

Intrigued by how this field can revolutionise personalised health and education, she delved into biochemistry and molecular biology for her PhD.

Image Credit: Nutrigene

In 2021, Wenxi launched Nutrigene with the thought that if DNA testing can provide valuable insights for adults, its impact could be multiplied if applied from a young age.

“The aim was to empower parents with the knowledge of their children’s genetic predispositions, enabling them to tailor nurturing environments that cater to their innate strengths and needs from the outset,” Wenxi shared.

With this goal, she personally invested around RM30,000 to start Nutrigene. The money, she said, was obtained from her university scholarships, as her father did not use them to pay for tuition fees.

“I chose not to pursue external funding options such as loans or grants, relying instead on this initial investment and our commitment to hard work to drive sales and growth.”

And it looks like this investment paid off. In their first operational year, 2022, Nutrigene was able to achieve a revenue figure that approached the seven-figure mark.

How it works

The company’s main product right now, Wenxi shared, is the RIASEC Career Talent DNA Test Report, paired with something called the Personalised Development Programme (PDP).

“We want to do something more than just selling DNA reports to parents,” she explained. “A lot of effort has been put into helping parents know what they can maximise with the insights they understand from the DNA reports.”

To create the personalised plans, Nutrigene brought together experts from different areas: molecular biologists, children’s psychologists, nutrition experts, career advisors, and teachers.

Image Credit: Nutrigene

Nutrigene’s solutions start with an online pre-test consultation for parents to set expectations and better understand the product.

After the purchase comes the DNA sample collection. Customers in the Klang Valley, Seremban, Johor Bahru, and Penang can benefit from a doorstep DNA sample collection service. As for those living outside of these areas, a DNA sample collection kit will be shipped to them.

Nutrigene doesn’t operate its own lab, instead partnering with an internationally accredited lab in Malaysia to process the samples.  

Once the DNA samples are processed, parents can book a one-on-one online consultation with Nutrigene’s team of experts that comprises a genetic nutritionist, child behavioural therapist, and a career psychologist.

These consultations aim to provide a deep understanding of the child’s DNA report, offering personalised insights and recommendations.

Image Credit: Nutrigene

The personalised development plan is then created. This programme includes three personalised classes tailored to the child’s genetic profile. There is a whole range of classes available which can be referenced here.

“We have a complete assessment process to ensure our children are on track with the goals set with their PDP,” Wenxi added.

Nutrigene also offers post-testing support that includes three years of unlimited consultations with experts, ensuring that the child’s development is continuously monitored and aligned with their genetic predispositions and their evolving interests and environment.

Serving children as young as 20 days old up to 18 years old, the company has partnered with Montessori schools, private educational institutions, and confinement centres. 

Given the pricing, which starts at RM2,799 for the RIASEC Career Talent DNA Report, it seems like the target audience is families from the middle to upper class.

To that, Wenxi said, “While our comprehensive DNA tests might appear to cater to upper-income families with prices in the four-figure range, we’ve made our services more accessible through a range of options.”

She said that they have tests that start at around RM2,000, and also have six to 60 months zero-interest instalment plans available.

Nature vs nurture

When it comes to a child’s disposition, there are typically two categories of influences at play—genetic and environmental, which are referred to as nature and nurture respectively.

Nutrigene is able to look at a child’s genetic makeup to determine the “nature” part of the equation.

Wenxi explained that there are specific genetic markers that can provide insights into a person’s learning preferences and natural talents. For instance, variants in genes like AVPR1A are associated with musical ability, influencing traits such as musical perception and creativity.

Image Credit: Nutrigene

“However, it’s crucial to understand that these genetic predispositions are just one part of the equation,” she recognised. “The age-old debate of nature versus nurture is not about choosing one over the other but recognising how they interact to shape an individual’s abilities and talents.”

Even though Nutrigene studies genetics, it doesn’t mean they ignore the environmental factors.

“Our goal isn’t to pigeonhole children based on their DNA but to use genetic insights as a starting point for personalised development,” she elaborated.

By identifying innate talents through genetic markers, they can provide a more directed and effective nurturing process.

DNA and security

Last December, DNA testing service provider 23andMe admitted hackers accessed DNA data of seven million users. This raises a concerning issue in terms of DNA and privacy—one that Wenxi said Nutrigene are aware of.  

“We take these concerns seriously, especially when it comes to the sensitive genetic information of children,” she started.

Image Credit: Nutrigene

To ensure security, Nutrigene’s DNA samples are anonymised with a unique barcode, severing any direct link to personal identities. The barcode is the only identifier throughout the testing process, ensuring the confidentiality of each sample.

The lab also adheres to rigorous protocols, maintaining personal and genetic data in separate, highly secure databases fortified with state-of-the-art security measures to prevent unauthorised access.

After analysis, physical DNA samples are destroyed to prevent further use or potential breach. They also have a multi-channel approach to data storage, meaning that even in the unlikely event of a security breach, the compromised data would be incomplete.

From Sarawak to the world

To date, Wenxi shared that Nutrigene has conducted approximately 1,000 DNA tests across Malaysia and Singapore. And just last month on January 8, 2024, the company announced the launch of their maiden branch located in Sarawak.  

“Choosing Sarawak for our maiden branch stemmed from the unique opportunity to expand our reach and impact in Eastern Malaysia, an area we see great potential in,” Wenxi explained.

She also said the decision was influenced by the interest from potential partners who shared their vision for the region.

Image Credit: Nutrigene

Prior to considering a branch in Kuching, Nutrigene’s operational hub had been in Puchong, which still remains for various admin operations.

As for the Sarawak branch, it’s envisioned to be a multi-functional space that supports Nutrigene’s educational and consultative aspects, possibly integrating elements of a learning centre.

Due to the novelty of genetic testing in Malaysia, launching Nutrigene has led to unique challenges. This is as using genetics in personal development and education is not only new to the public but also to many professionals in the field.

“This often led to misunderstandings or misinformation about the accuracy and relevance of genetic testing results,” Wenxi said.

To address these challenges, Nutrigene has been focusing on awareness campaigns to educate parents about the benefits of genetic testing. But overcoming these obstacles has not been easy, often demanding patience and persistence.

Still, the team believes that like any groundbreaking technology, genetic testing would gradually gain acceptance as more people become aware of its potential.  

  • Learn more about Nutrigene here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Nutrigene

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)