How an MBA grad helped win US$250,000 for his biotech firm

business competition
80% of genomic data now is biased (mainly coming from people of European ancestry). Asian, African, and Latin American populations are underrepresented so Global Gene Corp comes in to bridge that gap in diversity. Source: Kushagra Sharma

For his work on DNA — the smallest unit of information of who we are as a species — Kushagra Sharma has won big at a business competition. The MBA graduate is a co-winner of four US$250,000 prizes from the Roddenberry Foundation.

Every year, the Roddenberry Foundation awards YS$250,000 to four organisations working in the areas of Education, Environment, Science, or Humanity. Launched in 2016, the global competition seeks “crowdsource innovative solutions to issues that demand audacious, far-reaching, and scalable responses.”

The work of Global Gene Corp, a biotech pioneers addressing the lack of diversity in the genomic datasets, fits the bill. Our genes affect all aspects of our health. From how quickly we digest drugs or how susceptible we are to disease, our genes and the information they hold are crucial when developing new tests and treatments.

Current datasets are deeply skewed, with the vast majority of genomic data coming solely from people with white European ancestry. When 60% of the world’s population is represented by less than 5% of current datasets, many healthcare innovations turn out biased.

To fill this gap, Global Gene Corp is working with organisations around the world to collect and analyse genomic and medical datasets. It has built the most diverse genomic dataset for human populations.

As Chief Operating Officer, Sharma manages the day-to-day operations and revenue growth of the business, strategic planning, partnerships and service delivery at Global Gene Corp. We caught up with him to learn more about the business competition, how he uses the skills learned in his MBA and his future plans:

Tell us more about the Roddenberry Prize. What was the application process to join the business competition like and what do you plan to do with the funds?

The US$1 million Roddenberry Prize is a call for big, bold solutions from anyone and anywhere that address the challenges of an unpredictable and fast-changing global landscape. The application process consisted of two rounds but was extremely straightforward. 

Applicants had to demonstrate their work and how it positively impacts a post-COVID-19 world. We were honoured that our work at Global Gene Corp was recognised for our vision to enable genomics for the 2.5 billion people in Asia and the Middle East. 

We’ve utilised the Roddenberry Prize funds for that same purpose.

What were the key things you expected to benefit from an MBA?

I expected my MBA to help me achieve a global perspective on how to grow and manage a business successfully. That, and creating a network of peers, friends and alumni that can bank on each other for advice, support, and growth.

Why pursue it at INSEAD?

Ever since I started pursuing an MBA as the next step in my career, INSEAD stood out as the top choice for me primarily because I think it provides the best global experience and is tailored as a fast paced one year course that suited my requirements. 

It’s an entirely unique experience to interact with a diverse class with over 80 nationalities across campuses in Singapore, Fontainebleau and the recently added Abu Dhabi campus.

Would it have made a difference if you pursued this at a local institution? 

I think I would have missed out on a big component of the MBA experience in terms of a truly global business and personal network. In an integrated world, having a wider outlook is essential for global business leaders. 

Even local institutions are realising the importance of the same. Additionally, where else could you get a chance to stay in the middle of a forest in France and in a city like Singapore?

Besides winning the Roddenberry Prize, walk us through the importance of diversifying genomics at Global Gene Corp. 

Genomics is fundamentally transforming healthcare and our lives. Global Gene Corp grew out of this idea to democratise genomics for it to have a truly global positive impact. 

Our focus on diversity in genomics will help enable precision medicine for the people of Asia and the Middle East. At the same time, diverse genomic datasets produce insights that have global applications for everyone. 

What are some interesting facts you can share with us on the importance of genomes during COVID-19?

Our genes play a big role in determining our health and susceptibility to diseases. Having the aim to successfully answer questions like why does COVID-19 impact specific people in a certain way or what are the genetic drivers that can be used to determine an individual’s risk.

To further add, we need to think about intervening proactively and identifying protective factors for current and future strains. Our own genes may hold the key to averting potential future pandemics. 

How do you use the knowledge and skills gained in your MBA in your current role? 

Prior to starting Global Gene Corp and more so after that, the learnings from INSEAD have become embedded in my work culture. I’ve received great support from the alumni network whenever I’ve reached out for advice or assistance. 

What do you wish you learned more during uni?

I think every student who’s attended INSEAD has one wish: if only it could last a bit longer. But on a more serious note, I don’t think my learning ended with the end of the MBA. 

Whenever I need to fill a gap in my learning, the support system that the institute has in terms of alumni, professors or even current students, helps me bridge that gap.

Do you have any advice for international students looking to enrol in the same course as you?

I would advise them to come with an open mind and strive to learn from others. Not just in the structured classroom environment but via their interactions with their classmates both within and outside the campus.

Where do you envision yourself in 10 years?

INSEAD has made us into global citizens and our team is spread across three continents. So, any place in the world would be good. The idea would be to have a positive impact on the world around us which is what we are striving for with Global Gene Corp.

Lastly, any tips to budget wisely as a student abroad that you can share?

Budget for time as well as money when it comes to your studies and in co-curricular activities with friends and classmates. The experiences you’ll gather will be just as essential as the education. At INSEAD, this is even more important.