Startup Life: Danny Yeung of Circle DNA on how genetic testing can save lives


Wouldn’t it be great to know the optimal diet that successfully makes you lose weight? Or understand your skin’s natural ability to combat wrinkles and be able to strengthen that ability? Or even better, detect that you have a high risk of cancer and be able to prevent rather than treat it?

The good news you can do all these things and more — all it takes is a simple saliva swab.

We’re talking about Circle DNA, the world’s most comprehensive DNA test that delivers over 500 personalised reports on categories such as disease risk, food sensitivity, and even your personality and behavioural traits. It’s backed by Chinese stars G.E.M., Gigi Leung, and Vanness Wu, and it might just be the health and wellness solution of the future.

We decided to delve a little deeper and met up with CEO and Co-founder Danny Yeung to find out more. Read on to discover how he started, what it takes to be in the genetic-testing industry and most importantly, does it actually work?

Name: Danny Yeung

Profession: CEO and Co-founder of Circle DNA (Prenetics)

Industry: Genetic Testing

Startup since: 2014

Tell us about your business in your own words.

With a simple saliva sample you can uncover different things about yourself — your genetic blueprint. Things like how to optimise your diet and nutrition, stress profile, pharmacogenetics (your response to drugs), as well as more serious items related to health. It can identify your genetic risk for cancers and diseases: dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Even for family planning: if you’re looking to have a child, you can check if you or your partner have any genetic conditions that may or may not pass on to your unborn baby.

You can have a full profile of yourself so you can understand what you need to watch out for, areas that need attention and areas that can be optimised — it’s optimised wellbeing.

We are focused on health and prevention. We believe everyone should have the power to understand this information. And once you have this information, this is where you can make changes to your diet and lifestyle, ultimately delaying diseases and cancers.

There are four different Circle DNA test kits that range from HK$1,490 to HK$4,990 (Image: Prestige Hong Kong)

What’s behind the name Circle DNA?

Circle of life! It’s our direct consumer genetics testing brand, so we wanted to have a name that people would relate to and can remember, and ultimately understand what we do straight away.

Tell me about your best and worst days at work?

The best days are when we launch a product, or when we interview passionate potential employees that eventually join us. New partnerships or distribution deals, too. These are good days. But I do think that we make good progress every day, so I guess, they’re all good days. Ultimately what drives us is that we are making a difference for society. We’re making a difference to someone’s health, to their family and potentially the next generation.

I don’t know if there is a worst day. I have a very optimistic viewpoint naturally. It’s something that comes with being an entrepreneur, I think. Every day has its ups and downs; the challenge is how you get through them.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

When I’m not at work, I like to spend time with my daughter. She’s five years old. We like to take her out to play. Recently, we’ve been spending a lot of time on the South Side and we go to the beach.

Yeung with his daughter (Image: Prestige Hong Kong)

Is that how you ‘switch off’?

Not really. As an entrepreneur, you always have to be switched on. So throughout my life, or at least in the last 15 years since becoming an entrepreneur, it’s been a big part of me, always making sure I’m available. So I never switch off fully.

I look at things with a very logical and optimistic perspective so I don’t get stressed much, either. I try not to dwell on things, especially things I can’t control.

Looking back now, what would you have done differently?

Everything that we have done is part of the learning process. Do I regret anything? No. We’re moving in the right direction. The reason we launched Circle [DNA] now, as opposed to 4, 3 or 2 years ago, is because health and wellness has only become a much bigger topic in the last year or two. People are more aware now. So launching now, people already have a good idea.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start up?

In the health industry, you have to be a little more patient. It takes time to gain traction. Also, there are certain regulatory aspects, government approvals, lab certifications and a lot of different things that you have to do properly. At the end of the day, it’s about people’s health, so you want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to make sure you’re providing the best information to people.

Also, you need to have different stakeholders. Different partners. People that can help get the word out about health. You need to have different parties involved.

Lastly, find out your unique selling proposition, whatever business you’re in. If you don’t have one, then you shouldn’t go into business. A lot of people don’t realise that.

(Left to right) Vanness Wu, Gigi Leung, G.E.M. and Danny Yeung (Image: Prestige Hong Kong)

As a child, what did you aspire to be?

Actually, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I knew that I wanted to have my own business. I didn’t know that it would be this, but I knew I wanted to do my own thing. That’s why I started working really young. I started when I was 15! Or at least that’s when I was getting paid. I started working at a baseball card shop when I was 12 and the owner paid me in baseball cards.

What has been your biggest hurdle and how did you overcome it?

I wouldn’t say hurdle, but the biggest challenge, even now, is education. There’s still a lot of misinformation about what genetic testing can do. There’s are people who are like, “I don’t want to know” because they think it’s like a paternity test. But the technology has evolved to be much more than that, so awareness and education for genetic testing is still very important.

We’ve been able to do that somewhat, and have utilised three celebrities — G.E.M., Vanness [Wu] and Gigi Leung — who have come on board as our ambassadors. G.E.M., who is also an investor of the company, is putting her own personal name on it. It helps to create awareness, but it’s a continuous challenge. We’re still quite new to this space. I mean, in the US, roughly 8% of the population have done a genetic test. Here, in Asia, it’s only about 0.08%. So you can see the growth opportunity is massive.

Why is Hong Kong such an important market for Circle DNA?

I think Hong Kong is a great place. It’s like the hub between China and Southeast Asia, the connector. I also think Hong Kong is a challenging business environment. If you can survive and succeed here, you should be able to succeed anywhere else. It’s fast-paced and people are passionate here, too.

Yeung with G.E.M., an investor and ambassador of Circle DNA (Yeung with G.E.M., an investor and ambassador of Circle DNA (Image: Prestige Hong Kong)

If you were to invest in another start up, which would it be?

I think there are a lot of innovations in health and AI. Better solutions. There is still a lot of opportunity here. For instance turning something invasive into non-invasive. These are areas that are worth looking into.

What are your goals for 2019? And in the near future?

We are putting further effort into Circle DNA. Last month, we announced a major and exclusive partnership with Watsons where you can walk into any of the stores in Hong Kong and buy our product.

We’re looking to launch in Singapore and Taiwan next year as well, not to mention expanding our business in China. As for new products on the market, that’ll be next year, too.

How do you define success? And do you consider yourself successful?

There may be people that already consider me successful, but I don’t look at it that way. I still feel we have a very long way to go. We’re maybe at 1% of where we should be, but it has been a great journey thus far. We’ve been making the right strategic moves, we have the right investors, the right partnerships and the right business model. Now, we have to just scale and execute.

Ultimately we want to impact millions of people here in Asia. Once we reach a million people, then I might say, “Hey, we’re on to something”. But after that, I’ll have more goals.

Yeung with the Circle DNA team (Image: Prestige Hong Kong)

With other genetic tests on the market, how does Circle DNA compare with the others?

For our technology, the first thing to note is that we utilise whole exome sequencing, while our competitors utilise a technology called genotyping. The problem with genotyping is you’re only looking at a snip of a gene. You’re not looking at the whole gene, so you’re likely to miss a lot. In fact, a recent study revealed that genotyping companies have a 85% false positive rate. Which means if they provide any positive results, 85% of the time, it’s wrong.

Meanwhile, our test has also been externally validated by CUHK, the Croucher Laboratory for Human Genomics, for analytical accuracy at 99.9%. Accuracy to determine that gender mutation does exist in your body.

Do you have examples of people that Circle DNA has worked on?

I’m a prime example. About three years ago, I actually detected that I have an increased risk of colon cancer. So of course, I was quite scared and shocked because I don’t have a family history of cancer. In fact, 40-50% of people who have genetic mutations do not have a history.

It was because of that risk that I modified my diet and lifestyle. I cut out red meat and lost over 20 pounds over the last 3 years. And I also started early screening at 37 years of age. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t get those results. I would have most likely waited until age 50, which is the global recommendation for screening. But for someone like me with an increased risk, that may have been too late for me.

So will I live longer if I take the test?

That’s a bold statement to make, but I can certainly say that our tests can definitely delay or help people to prevent diseases and cancers, therefore saving lives.

For more information about Circle DNA, visit their website.

This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.

(Main and featured image: Prestige Hong Kong)

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