BEHIND THE TECH THAT DISCOVERED

South African scientists were widely lauded for the discovery of the Omicron coronavirus variant, although this was initially clouded by travel bans. What is less well known, however, is the role played by Hyrax Bioscience’s software platform (Exatype) in enabling the scale-up of genomic surveillance that led to detection of the variant. Exatype automates the process of characterising variants through its capacity to analyse thousands of viral DNA sequences simultaneously. Automation of this process, which would otherwise need to be conducted manually by a highly-skilled bioinformatician in a complex series of steps, is key – finding variants cannot happen without scaling up sample analysis. Exatype makes this possible.

How this software came into being offers important lessons about developing impactful innovations for society. It’s important to reflect on this, partly because South Africa and the rest of the continent has been criticised for not developing its own vaccines, which has been attributed to lack of investment in research and development. The development of the Exatype software shows that South Africa has done some things correctly in the area of research and development. Here’s how it came into being.

A couple of years ago, South Africa, under the Thabo Mbeki presidency, decided to set up Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) in academic institutions, with the aim of protecting intellectual property and commercialisation of research. In the absence of such offices, universities were struggling to derive economic value from their research and thereby missing an opportunity to turn research into something that could benefit society.

One of these TTOs was setup at the University of the Western Cape, where a group of researchers were also working on HIV research. Some of the academics – including Simon Travers, now CEO of Hyrax Biosciences – who were working at the South African National Bioinformatics Institute, approached the UWC TTO office to get support for a technology that was used in their HIV research. The academics understood that this technology could be used for health challenges. This process led to the formation of Hyrax Biosciences, the company that developed Exatype and a software that has been instrumental in discovering the Omicron variant for the world. Exatype removes all the complexities in genetic sequence analysis.

“It enables laboratories that lack the expertise necessary to undertake manual analysis to perform high-throughput genomic surveillance,” says Travers, a member of the UWC team that developed the system and now CEO of the spin-off company, Hyrax Biosciences.

“To date, Exatype has been used by laboratories across Africa to analyse the equivalent of 42% of all the data generated on the African continent – that is more than 25 000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes.” said Travers, when asked about the impact of this software.

What’s important to note is that the Exatype software would not exist today had it not been for the creation of the TTO at the University of the Western Cape. These offices exist in other universities as well and they’ve been instrumental in turning academic research into something that can add value to society.

The development of the Exatype software shows what’s possible when research and development is provided with the necessary support. It also shows a model that needs to be followed to enable research to become reality, and this includes commercialisation.

Today, Hyrax Biosciences operates as a start-up and is headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa. It is driven by one overriding goal: to automate the analysis and interpretation of pathogen DNA-sequence data. Exatype, their DNA analysis platform, delivers consistently accurate and clear reporting at scale, without the need for human intervention. It’s also important to highlight another important element to the existence of this company. Hyrax Biosciences is funded by the University Technology Fund. The UTF is a venture fund focused on commercialising technology, intellectual property and research originating from South African universities. The UTF therefore bridges the gap between technology ideation, research, and intellectual property development and its commercialisation. The UTF represents a unique opportunity to catalyse and commercialise the technology transfer industry in South Africa for the benefit of all South Africans.

If South Africa is to develop solutions to some of our major challenges, the support of research and development is key. Secondly, funding of start-ups formed in universities is another key element in creating solutions that matter.

There’s a need to create more companies like Hyrax Biosciences and to do that we will need more innovative and entrepreneurial thinking in academic institutions.

Wesley Diphoko

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