Sharlini Eriza Putri, Vincent Kurniawan, and Revata Utama are three curious young people from different backgrounds: Putri is a chemical engineer, Kurniawan is an industrial engineer, and Utama is a biomedical sciences graduate with experience in genomics technology. The three of them share the same concern: Health problems brought on by environmental degradation are becoming worse every day and endanger society.
These old friends wanted to find out more about the reasons behind those problems, which led them to study the world of the microbiome, the complex ecosystem of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on and inside every living thing on Earth, including human bodies. Each person has a unique microbiome profile. It plays a critical role in the development of the immune system.
Scientists believe that the combination of healthy microbiomes of all elements on the planet—oceans, soil, human, animals, and plants—upholds the fabric of life. Therefore, understanding the importance of microbiome balance could lead to a more sustainable way of living for humans and the environment. Based on that idea, the group founded Nusantics in 2019, the first and only genome tech startup in Indonesia.
“A genome is the ‘blueprint’ of the organism. We know that the human body consists of cells that build organs and then the organ system, which eventually becomes one human. What many people don’t know is that 52% of the human body consists of the microbiome, and without it, we wouldn’t be a fully functioning human,” Nusantics chief technology officer Revata Utama said to KrASIA.
“We use genome technology to study the interactions and relationships between the microbiome diversity and humans.”
The startup first introduced its technology to the beauty industry. In its lab, Nusantics Hub, the startup performs a facial swab test for consumers to assess and score the skin’s microbiome diversity. It also provides a consulting service for skin microbiome balance treatment. According to Nusantics, a diverse, balanced microbiome is essential for healthy skin, so understanding one’s microbiome balance can lead to informed choices about skincare products that fit one’s natural physical state.
“We chose the beauty industry because it is a very lucrative sector and it doesn’t have complicated regulations. The application of skin microbiome technology is also relevant to consumers’ daily lives,” said Nusantics CEO Sharlini Eriza Putri.
The startup’s next step in this direction is to collaborate with various players in the industry, like skincare and cosmetics companies, to develop microbiome-friendly products.
Nusantics core business lies in its R&D capabilities. Aside from cultivating beauty products and services, Nusantics plans to work with stakeholders in the health and educational sectors to produce test kits for analyzing and monitoring microbiome profiles.
Involvement in the production of COVID-19 test kits
When the coronavirus began to spread in Indonesia, it was difficult to get tested due to the lack of test kits. As Nusantics’ CTO has experience in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method, the startup decided to approach the Indonesia Technology Assessment and Application Agency (BPPT) and volunteered to make a COVID-19 test kit prototype. Later on, they joined BPPT’s national coronavirus task force on research and technological innovation (TFRIC-19).
“Before Nusantics, I worked at a company focusing on molecular diagnostics, where I was involved in research and development of chip-in-a-tube technology, digital PCR, as well as the microbiome. The basic of genome technology is PCR,” said Nusantics CTO Revata Utama.
Genomic mapping is essential because the virus is continuously mutating to adapt to its hosts and environment, and whole-genome sequencing is crucial for COVID-19 vaccine research and development in Indonesia.
The pandemic has given the startup a renewed purpose. Nusantics has developed two generations of COVID-19 test kits. The first type was distributed to 19 provinces across Indonesia as part of the Indonesia Pasti Bisa movement, a program initiated by early-stage venture capital firm East Ventures in collaboration with BPPT and state-owned pharmacy company Bio Farma to support the production of 100,000 COVID-19 test kits. The project distributed 100,020 RT-PCR test kits last June.
“Because the first generation was created at the start of the pandemic, our main goal was to provide test kits quickly. We made it with a singleplex design, while the second generation was made with a multiplex design that makes its diagnostic process three times faster and relevant with the latest mutation from the current United Kingdom outbreak,” said Utama.
Bio Farma has mass-produced and commercialized both generations of test kits, with a production capacity of 1.5 million test kits per month. If needed, the output can be doubled.
With no certain end in sight for the pandemic, Nusantics is forging ahead to develop the third generation of test kits that can detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus from a saliva sample.
“We are still in the process of researching whether the saliva sample can be used as a replacement for the swab. The experience of getting a swab test can be uncomfortable, even painful for some people. Patient’s noses may itch afterward and they’d sneeze, which puts health workers who performed the test at risk of being exposed to the virus. Therefore, they need to wear personal protective equipment,” Utama said.
“Taking samples from saliva is certainly easier, it doesn’t hurt the patient and is safer for medical practitioners. In theory, this test would also be cheaper as it requires fewer medical practitioners,” said Utama. Development for this third-generation test kit is set to be completed by the end of March.
Nusantics recently raised an undisclosed amount in Series A funding led by East Ventures. The cash will be used to further enhance the startup’s R&D capabilities related to microbiome analysis and medical diagnostics. East Ventures’ venture advisor Triawan Munaf will also be joining Nusantics’ board of commissioners.
“Microbiome-related research is useful for consumers, industry partners, as well as the governments. Our long-term vision is to maintain biodiversity in Indonesia by doing microbiome-related research and diagnosis. This way, we can prevent environmental damage in the future,” said Putri.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.