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Combine computers, big data, genetics and entrepreneurship and what do you get?

Photo of: Marc Fiume

Marc Fiume’s startup, DNAStack is poised to take the world of genomics by storm. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

If you’re Marc Fiume, a University of Toronto PhD graduate in computer science, the answer is DNAStack, a bioinformatics startup company that is poised to take the world of genomics by storm.

Fiume, 27, is the son of entrepreneurs and always imagined that he’d follow in their footsteps, “but I didn’t expect to do it at age 27. However, after nine years as a student, it seemed like the perfect time to stay in Toronto and enter into a fast-growing industry.”

With his computer science and bioinformatics background, Fiume says he could have gone to work for an existing software company “but with launching this company we have the exciting privilege to be doing cutting-edge work in an industry that is still in its infancy.

“Ten years ago, I had no idea what genomics was. Now, I’m in touch with the leading researchers in the field. I’d heard of the Human Genome Project, and now we’re working with the same researchers who worked on that project, only now we’re trying to make genomics personal.”

Innovative product

DNAStack, Fiume’s bioinformatics startup company, has created a product that has the potential to make an enormous impact in medicine: a database and search engine that compares defects in the genetic code of a person suffering from a specific disease to the genetic code of millions of other people, looking for commonalities that will help geneticists find the cause of their patient’s disorder, or to help find a donor match for conditions like blood cancer. His company takes its name from the challenge of such a search: it’s like seeking a (DNA) needle in a haystack.

“My PhD research was about building a search engine for researchers who are looking for patterns in DNA,” Fiume said. “My company is doing this on a much larger scale.”

Fiume launched DNAStack in February 2014 with four people, including him: a fellow PhD, a student and a business partner who is an MBA with broad experience. Since that time, the company has started collaborating with large search and database corporations, such as Google. He is also moving the field of bioinformatics forward as a leading member of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, a coalition of over 300 organizations from research and industry who are working together to create standards for what Fiume calls “the Internet of DNA.”

“We’re considering how to get the world’s genetic data online securely so that discoveries can be made from the enormous amounts of genetic information that are collected by individual organizations worldwide,” Fiume said. “People recognize that in order for discoveries to be made faster, data must be shared. My company is creating technologies for responsible data sharing and people are very excited by its potential. It’s one of the first steps toward creating a global search engine for the world’s genetic data.”

None of this would have happened, Fiume says, without U of T and a conversation he had with his uncle, a U of T computer science professor. He chatted with his uncle, who told him that the university was starting a new program in bioinformatics and suggested that Marc check into it.

“That’s really how it started,” he said. “I loved it, and it kept snowballing.”

Looking at where he is today, Fiume is amazed.

“I had never coded anything before coming to U of T,” he said, “but computer science is like no other field. One person can make a huge impact. Just like Facebook and Twitter have changed the way people socialize, computer science is changing the way we make discoveries and practice medicine. We could not be more excited to be part of this transformation.”