Viromics Playground: Combatting the coronavirus crisis with Big Data, a cross-disciplinary approach


Institutional Communication Service

9 March 2020

One of the main concerns with the outbreak of COVID-19 is the current unavailability of an effective treatment. Developing a treatment takes time, which is why any solution to speed up the process is more than welcome. This is where the Ticino-based startup company BigOmics Analytics can help, which has developed an online platform for easy access to public omics data about the coronavirus (and related viruses, such as SARS and MERS).

BigOmics Analytics was founded in 2018 as a spin-off of the Institute of Oncology Research (affiliated to the USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences), and is currently incubated at the CP Start-up of USI. In 2019, it launched Viromics Playground, a cloud-based self-service platform for analyzing and visualizing biological data at the molecular level, known as omics data (“omics” is a neologism, which generally refers to fields of study in biology, e.g. genomics, proteomics, etc.). The two founders of the startup, Murodzhon Akhmedov and Ivo Kwee, both hold a PhD and have solid backgrounds in bioinformatics, programming and artificial intelligence. They were joined by Axel Martinelli with a graduate degree specialisation in immunology and bioinformatics and recently by Martina Drinjak, a marketing and transformative economy specialist pursuing her Masters studies at USI. In fact, the team members come from different academic backgrounds, which underlines the importance of cross-disciplinary approaches to find innovative solutions to modern-day problems.

As Dr. Martinelli explains in a recent interview given to the Ticino daily La Regione, events such as the current coronavirus epidemic "underline the importance of implementing these technologies in the medical field to enable the early identification of infectious or cancerous diseases and help in the choice of appropriate drugs". Dr. Martinelli adds, “our virus-specific open access version of the platform (The VirOmics Playground) allows researchers easy access to sophisticated analysis of biomedical data, such as, for example, various samples of previous infections with coronavirus such as MERS and SARS. Thanks to this platform, researchers and specialists can quickly and intuitively visualize various information that can help in the study and fight against infectious diseases and tumors. For example, it is possible to identify potential drugs with antiviral activities, proteins for the development of vaccines or genetic indicators that indicate the presence of an infection in the absence of symptoms, depending on the available data".

“Many real-world problems are complex in nature and need cross-disciplinary approaches to tackle them”, says Ivo Kwee, CTO and co-founder of BigOmics. “In particular, utilizing Big Data has great potential to successfully solve complex problems in various fields, including technology, business, and healthcare. In our case, biologists collect huge amounts of omics data that need to be analysed quickly and efficiently. Important to innovation is to give them the right tools. Our platforms allow them to easily analyse and visualise the data themselves without learning how to program. From this perspective, we see our platforms as good examples of products that have emerged from cross-disciplinary research”.

With concerns to the entrepreneurial experience of BigOmics, Murodzhon Akhmedov, CEO and co-founder of BigOmics, comments, “There is some good support for starting entrepreneurship activities in Ticino, with organisations such as AGIRE Foundation, one of the main players in Ticino which promotes local innovation, entrepreneurship and economic competitiveness, and CP Start-Up, the startup incubator of USI which offers services to support startups in the region. These two entities together organise, among many other activities, the Boldbrain Startup Challenge, a competition that takes place annually in Ticino, in which we also took part in 2017, ranking third. Overall, the startup ecosystem in Ticino is young but growing well. Nevertheless, we observe a certain lack of investors, especially those who are willing to take initial risks in new areas such as digital health, in a region like Ticino, which has some of the world’s leading institutes in biomedicine and AI. We truly hope to see more startups being established in Ticino in the near future, especially in the digital health area. In this respect, we believe that initial incentives from the Canton or private investors for early stage startups could enable further entrepreneurship in Ticino”.