When Melissa Strong was expecting her first child 10 years ago, she became concerned as a parent about how the environment and chemical exposures can affect people’s health.
As a Ph.D. graduate from the Medical University of South Carolina with a focus on environmental health, Melissa Strong noticed that there was a lot of disjointed information on the internet on the matter.
“I realized that you had to go look up a scientific article to get anything substantial,” Strong said. “How is anyone without a biology degree supposed to navigate this information?”
That is when Strong developed the nonprofit Coalition for Prevention and its “Healthy-Living Pocket Guide,” which provides simple steps people can take to limit their negative environmental exposures.
Flash forward to today, and Strong’s efforts to provide research backed information to individuals has grown into IndiOmics, a biotech startup based in Wilmington that combined “individualized” and “omics” (technologies that measure cellular molecules) to form its name.
People are exposed to chemicals every day. From the plastics used to store food to sunscreen to meals, there are many ways that people’s health can be affected by environmental factors.
During the opening ceremony for this year’s SAS Global Forum, which brings together those in the analytics, artificial intelligence and data management fields, Strong explained how IndiOmics is using data, research and analytics to learn about how bodies respond to chemical exposures.
“We are trying to understand the effects of over 85,000 synthetic chemicals that are now in our environment and have the potential to influence our health, and machine learning is our path to find those answers,” Strong said at the event.
With IndiOmics, slated to launch in January, users will create an online account and complete a questionnaire about their lifestyle, diet and consumer habits.
Then they will receive a kit, similar to genealogy kits by 23andMe or Anc estryDNA, with containers for saliva and urine samples. Once the lab receives the samples, IndiOmics will measure for a range of chemicals and look at the user’s cells.
When results are in, including levels of exposure to chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), paraben and lead, users can look at and interact with their report through an online dashboard and receive a set of recommended lifestyle changes addressing concerns that their results might show.
The price for the kit has not yet been determined, and there will be different versions that test for different ranges of chemicals. The most basic option would test for 12 of the most common endocrine disrupting chemicals, Strong said.
“We want to understand if these exposures are leading to inflammation or risk factors for disease,” Strong said. “The big thing is how can we modify it so if w e can measure them in people, we can correlate them with adverse health effects. The steps for addressing these are usually a lot easier than we might imagine. For example, sometimes it could be as simple as no longer microwaving or heating plastics, which can eliminate a really big source of exposure.”
While IndiOmics can find correlations that may link to a certain health condition, it will not assert that an exposure caused a health effect.
“We can’t say causation,” Strong said. “We’re not going to be able to say the exposure caused this individual’s cancer, but we can find a lot of interesting correlations, or links to risk factors that may have been going on to set the stage for the cancer to develop.”
IndiOmics comes at a time when people are more aware of environmental factors they might have been exposed to, including GenX, an unregulated compound found in the region’s treated drinking water linked to The Chemours Co.’s operation in Fayetteville.
“We here in the Cape Fear region are especially tuned to GenX and other PFAS compounds that we know have been discharged into the river,” Strong said. “Most of us here in this region are probably going to have certain levels of PFAS compounds. In that case, there’s not really much we can do beyond installing a reverse osmosis filter. But another thing we can do is no longer buy products containing these PFAS compounds like nonstick cookware.”
To develop the startup, Strong has worked with Cary-based SAS Institute and other businesses in the Wilmington area.
“In November there was the Cucalorus Connect conference, and that was where a lot of the contacts were made with SAS because they were presenting their Data for Good initiative,” Strong said. “We agreed to partner with them in December, and things have gone a lot faster than I thought since then. We’ve had a couple of events, but it was speaking at the SAS Global Forum that really catapulted the efforts.”
IndiOmics will license SAS for the dashboard visualization aspect of the product, Strong said.
The startup has partnered with Leland-based crime-scene kit maker Tri-Tech Forensics, which will assemble the kits, print labels and mail the kits to customers. It also partnered with SeaTox Research, a biotechnology research and development company with lab space at University of North Carolina Wilmington’s MARBIONC building that IndiOmics was able to use.
“Seeing data science really build here locally, I was never expecting that,” Strong said. “Wilmington was very different 30 years ago when I was growing up here. To have our supply chain, laboratory, all of these academic partners within this region has been phenomenal. I’ve lived in San Francisco, spent a lot of time in Boulder as well, and I have seen more happening here, at a much more affordable … much less competitive way. So that has been refreshing.”
With recent data breaches and news about companies sharing user data, Strong said IndiOmics would not sell its consumer information.
“Selling data is no part of our business model,” Strong said. “The information will only be accessible within that individual secure dashboard.”
To devote more time to the company, Strong left her data scientist role at nCino and has been funding operations herself. Now that IndiOmics is closer to launching, Strong is seeking funding to grow the startup.
“We’re at the point where the plan is very clear,” Strong said. “We just need to go ahead and see if someone wants to invest. I have been bootstrapping this myself mostly. It’s definitely a challenge figuring out how to cover your expenses in a new way.”
To help with the launch of the startup, Strong recently recruited Wayne Zehner to take on the role of CEO.
While there are a lot of laboratories measuring chemicals and other groups looking at cell markers, what makes IndiOmics unique is that it is combining those two with data science and machine learning, Strong said.
“There’s no denying that we’ve shifted our lifestyles in some pretty dramatic ways based on even 100 years ago,” Strong said. “I would like to see the awareness of environmental health go mainstream, and that’s already happening.”