Billion-dollar Chinese startup aims to create ‘ecosystem of digital life’

From digital health records to real-time fitness trackers to telehealth and cognitive computing systems like IBM’s Watson, healthcare has been undergoing revolution after revolution in recent years. In turn, all the health- and fitness-related data that’s being generated by individuals today is creating the potential for even more innovative services.

A China-based startup called iCarbonX hopes to harness all of that data to build what it describes as “an ecosystem of digital life.” By analyzing health-related big data with the help of machine learning and artificial intelligence, iCarbonX envisions being able to make predictions about a person’s well-being and provide customized, individualized recommendations for nutrition, beauty, medical care and more.

“I’m trying to build a crystal ball,” Jun Wang, the company’s founder and CEO, told Bloomberg earlier this year. “By analyzing all the data that we can get our hands on, we will be able to see more clearly to predict what might happen to your body in the future.”

Wang, who co-founded the Beijing Genomics Institute in 1999 (where he helped to sequence the genomes of a human, as well as of a giant panda and of the human gut microbiome), launched iCarbonX in October of 2015. In the short time since then, iCarbonX has attracted at least $200 million in funding from several investors, including the China-based giant, Tencent Holdings, the company behind the 700-million-user-strong messaging app WeChat. Earlier this year, iCarbonX announced it had reached a valuation of around $1 billion, one of only three health-focused startups in China to have done so, according to Bloomberg.

“Basically, I am just trying to feed an AI system with masses of data,” Wang told the journal Nature in a 2015 interview. “Then that system could learn to understand human health and human life better than we do. The AI will try to draw a formula for life. Life is digital, like a computer program — if you want to understand the results of the programming, how the genes lead to phenotypes, it is sufficiently complicated for you to need an AI system to figure out the rules.”

Wang said iCarbonX aims to collect genomic data from at least one million people — it had samples from 100,000 in July of 2015 — and then develop algorithms that can identify links between genes, lifestyle habits and environmental factors to be able to make health-related predictions based on any person’s unique characteristics.

“And we want the data to be alive, in the sense that they can update their phenotype information at any time point,” Wang told Nature. “Other big computing companies, such as Google, could eventually do this, but we want to do it first.”

If it succeeds at that goal, iCarbonX would be able to serve as a “virtual village” for people who want to use their analyzed health data to life better, longer and healthier lives, Wang believes.

Over the shorter term, the company aims to come out with personalized products for beauty and skincare.

“We favor the healthcare sector and the leading biotech and artificial intelligence team led by [Jun] Wang,” said Zeng Qiang, founder of China Bridge Capital, which invested $45 million in iCarbonX in July. Qiang told China Money Network recently, “We are also optimistic about iCarbonX’s synergy with Tencent on users, big data and cloud computing.”


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