Breaking the Code: Queensborough Alum Makes Forbes 30 Under 30 List for His Genetics Research Start-Up
It is simple to collect a DNA sample: swab a cheek, pull a few strands of hair from the head or collect a saliva sample. Yet it can take years to gather samples, even though a study - were there enough samples - can be completed in about one month.
This is the challenge that inspired Queensborough graduate Olivier Noel to launch his game changing start-up, DNAsimple. The saliva donor service provides scientists with critically important DNA samples, significantly accelerating the pace of scientific research. It allows users to contribute to research studies for the samples they provide. After filling out a profile on their website, the system matches the person’s attributes with a researcher. Once he or she agrees to participate, they are sent a saliva kit as well as compensation for their time.
“Being in a small rural town we had difficulty accessing a large number of patient samples for important research studies mainly due to the geographic barrier,” said Noel, now in his sixth year of Penn State College of Medicine’s MD/Ph.D. Medical Scientist Training Program. “I wanted to build a database where patients/study participants all over the country could be matched into research studies independent of location, as long as they fit the study requirement.”
Noel, who grew up in Haiti and then moved to New York, explained that genetics has “always been a passion”. He knew he wanted to be a doctor, and was focused on his journey toward that goal when he enrolled at Queensborough in the fall of 2007, where he studied with a pre-med track in mind.
While at the College, Olivier worked as a tutor in Queensborough’s Student Learning Center—in fact it was his first job in the U.S.—where he helped students in the subjects of French, Spanish, Chemistry and Biology. Grateful for the many connections he made while at Queensborough, Olivier expressed special appreciation for the guidance of Bonnie Cook, Director of the Student Learning Center. “I still return to Queensborough when I can, just to say hello and catch-up.”
In the spring of 2008 Olivier transferred to Queens College where he obtained his baccalaureate degree in Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Noel’s big break for his business idea began when DNAsimple was accepted into the Y Combinator program, which includes such notable “alumni” as Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit. DNAsimple was one of 32 companies accepted from more than 6,500 applicants worldwide, Noel said.
His business acumen was recognized in Forbes magazine annual 2017 30 Under 30 list in the science category. Forbes’ 30 Under 30 is ‘the definitive gathering of today’s leading young change-makers and innovators’. He was recently featured as a contestant on the popular ABC show Shark Tank. He was also interviewed in an ALLin episode.
Today, there are over 20,000 users of DNAsimple. The scientists they partner with are from academia and business, and some are working on rare diseases, drug response testing and cancer research studies.
As to Olivier’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: “There really is no secret formula to success, but it is essential to know your numbers and all the details of your business like the back of your hand. You also need to build a team of people who are as passionate and determined as you are about turning a great idea into reality.”