To anyone who got to know Olivier Noel ’11 during his time at Queens College, it will come as no surprise to learn that while still engaged in MD/PhD studies at Penn State College of Medicine, he has become the cofounder of a novel biotech/healthcare company. Nor would anyone be surprised that his accomplishment is such that it has garnered him an inclusion in Forbes magazine’s prestigious 30 Under 30 in Science list for 2017, which acknowledges awardees for “Discovering new things about our world and new ways to save it.”
A native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Noel, 28, was an outstanding student at Queens who regularly made the dean’s list and received awards in biology and chemistry, including an American Heart Association Summer Research Fellowship. A member of the soccer team, he somehow also found time to tutor students in French, Spanish, biology, and chemistry, and volunteer at the Queens Hospital Center Emergency Room.
In the summer of 2015, Noel launched DNAsimple, an online DNA bank for researchers to have access to DNA samples from people from all over the world. DNAsimple allows donors to contribute to scientific studies and provides genetic researchers with the samples they need, for about half the cost of creating and managing an in-house genomic sample bank. This eliminates many of the issues of time and geography researchers typically encounter when trying to acquire DNA samples.
As Noel explains it, research at many genetic institutes is often stymied by the need to find individuals able to take the time to travel—sometimes significant distances—to the research centers and provide DNA samples. When a presenter at a medical genetics conference at UPenn recounted a similar situation and how it was eventually resolved, Noel quickly realized that the scenario the speaker described could be replicated and systematized in a way that could benefit countless other researchers.
“They were studying a rare disease with an even lower incidence rate in Pennsylvania and the western world” says Noel. “By doing a Facebook search, they were able to find a support group for people with the disease in India, and were able to contact them and have a DNA sample shipped over.”
DNA can be collected from hair, several parts of the body, and bodily fluids such as blood and saliva. Saliva, explains Noel, is both easy to collect and, as it’s not a hazardous substance, easy to ship.
It struck Noel that by directly contacting genetic disease support groups—as well as reaching out via social media services—potential donors representing various diseases could be found and asked to join DNAsimple’s registry and ultimately provide saliva samples. These would become part of a genomics bank researchers could contact instead of conducting their own time-consuming searches.
Donors are de-identified so that researchers do not see any of their personal information and vice versa. Once donors match a specific study requirement, they are mailed saliva collections kits in which to place their samples and return them in the same manner. Each kit includes a buffer that helps stabilize the sample for several months. While some donors receive compensation for their samples, others forego payment and instead opt to donate it to a charity of their choice.
Noel has two partners in the DNAsimple venture: Tarik Salameh, a fellow Penn State MD/PhD student who studies bioinformatics, and Jeff Conway, a computer scientist with expertise in algorithms and artificial intelligence. He proudly recounts that theirs was one of 32 startup companies selected from 6500 worldwide to benefit from Silicon Valley’s inaugural Y Combinator fellowship program. The eight-week program targets companies in the early stages of development. Those selected receive a $12k equity-free grant from Y Combinator. In November DNAsimple graduated from the fellowship and set up an office in Center City, PA. Y Combinator remains interested in maintaining a relationship, says Noel.
Recently DNAsimple was one of 25 companies accepted into the Philadelphia-based DreamIt accelerator cycle. Nearly 1000 companies from over 40 countries applied for a spot. DreamIt, which works in partnership with Independence Blue Cross and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, was named one of the top 10 business accelerators in the world by Forbes magazine.
Upon learning of Noel’s recent accomplishments, his former QC faculty mentor, Nathalia Holtzman, in whose biology lab he performed research, remarked, “I am very proud of Olivier and how far he has come since joining my lab. He has always been a hard-working and charismatic individual. He is able to balance everything; he even plays sports well. The company Olivier started is a fabulous idea. He is really filling a niche that will serve as a great source for many researchers.”
True to form, despite all that is going on in his professional life, Noel still plays soccer with a league on Tuesdays and coaches in a youth league.