DNAstack creates genomics software that makes it easier to share data, helping scientists find faster solutions to conditions like autism and COVID-19.
DNAstack is a company born from compassion and the desire to help. In 2014, Marc Fiume, then a graduate student in computer science at U of T, was thinking about his best friend Dan, who has cystic fibrosis.
The underlying cause of illness and how it manifests in different people is challenging to understand. In some cases, such as cystic fibrosis, a change in a single gene causes the disease. In others, multiple genes, interactions between genes, or interactions between genetics and the person’s environment play a role. Fiume realized that his field – computer science – would eventually play a vital role in the search for diagnosing and treating complex conditions.
Fiume started DNAstack with fellow U of T alumnus James Vlasblom and co-founders Ryan Cook and Miro Cupak. Today, Fiume is an adjunct professor in the department of molecular genetics at U of T and DNAstack is a thriving company whose software enables searching, accessing and analyzing genomic and biomedical data, accelerating research into everything from autism to COVID-19.
Starting up at U of T played a big part in building successful genomics software
U of T’s entrepreneurship ecosystem played a key role in DNAstack’s growth, providing office space on campus and mentoring connections.
“We’re a health-tech company, so the proximity to the University’s affiliated and world-leading research hospitals definitely had an impact,” he says. “It’s fantastic to have adopters of your technology on your street.” He also found it useful to be immersed in the ecosystem at Canada’s top university, where a lot of the leading genomics and computer science research is happening. “The geography played a big part in our ability to start the company, because we were so close to brilliant collaborators,” he says.
Mentorship and networking help from U of T Entrepreneurship linked DNAstack with early seed funding from the Ontario Brain Institute and the Ontario Centres of Excellence. With that they were up and running: DNAstack launched their genomics cloud platform in 2014.
Today, the company offers research access to one of the world’s largest autism genome and clinical databases through the Autism Sharing Initiative and its flagship Beacon Network product is a real-time, global search engine for genetic mutations.
The University gave DNAstack invaluable boosts, says Fiume, who earned undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University. “U of T is very well respected, and I’ve been able to collaborate with world leaders, not just in Toronto, but all over the world,” he explains. “We’re just grateful for the opportunity to have been trained at U of T, and for the network here in Toronto that has allowed us to build a company with global impact.”
DNAstack is helping fight COVID-19 by helping scientists quickly search genomic data about the virus
When the COVID-19 global pandemic began, Fiume and DNAstack quickly adapted their technology to make genomic sequences of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, findable and searchable. With support from the Digital Technology Supercluster and partners, DNAstack launched the COVID-19 Beacon in late March 2020, empowering users to share and discover knowledge about the genetics of the virus in real time.
“By sharing this genomic information over a cloud-based global network, there is the potential to improve knowledge of COVID-19 at a speed and scale that isn’t otherwise possible,” Fiume said. “That will contribute to new ways to fight the virus, such as the development of a vaccine. Our job is to get people the information they need, so we can find solutions that provide timely insights for the development policy, therapies and vaccines.”