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October 2016

Cracking the genetic code of high performance athletes

“I don’t think I realized I was an entrepreneur at first,” says Jeremy Koenig, founder of Halifax-based genomics start-up, Athletigen. “But then as I got more experience, I started to realize how my background in research could be an asset to me in founding a company — so I did just that.”

As a former varsity athlete and PhD scholar in biochemistry and molecular biology, Jeremy has always balanced a passion for sport with his profession as a genetics researcher. The idea of combining the two into a company began to take shape during a Mitacs Accelerate internship.

For his Mitacs-funded project, supervised by Robert Beiko in Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Computer Science, Jeremy partnered with local biotech firm Performance Genomics. His internship sought to determine the genetic markers of infertility among dairy cattle. The study focused on improving the success of commercial milk production, but could also inform current studies on human fertility challenges.

The internship gave Jeremy a glimpse at the potential for commercial applications of genomics. “My internship with Performance Genomics showed me that industry was ready to adopt genomics into their practices and — in the right context — genomics can be used to inform lifestyle adjustments that improve physical performance.”

Soon after completing the internship, Jeremy founded Athletigen. Now, elite athletes turn to his company to tell them how their DNA sets them apart and how to take advantage of their differences as they train for competition. The company now employs nearly 20 staff — having attracted ten of them to move to Halifax for the opportunity to work at the company. As it moves into its next stage of growth, Jeremy is seeking partnerships across North America with players in the research, athletics, and biotechnology sectors.

For Jeremy, the leap from researcher to entrepreneur came naturally.

“People may not know this, but being an academic requires you to be something of an entrepreneur.

"You’ve identified a problem that you’re passionate about, and that is worth solving. You need to build a talented team, raise money, and strive relentlessly toward an end goal that might not always be clear.

“However, one of the keys to success in both paths is to establish a solid support network. I’ve had immense support from the community here in Halifax and from various local and national funding organizations.

“With Athletigen we want to make a difference from right here in Nova Scotia. Our hope is to accelerate discovery, deliver actionable genetics, and improve lives. That is to say, we want to turn human potential into human performance.”

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada along with Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, and the Government of Saskatchewan for their support of Mitacs Accelerate.