Max Derbyshire was studying political science and global health as an undergraduate at Northwestern University when he met fellow student Ana Cornell. The two discovered that the same genetic condition runs in both their families, and when they realized there were no private, affordable DNA tests available on the market, they were spurred into action. “Given my interest in healthcare and personalized medicine, I was really compelled by the concept of this democratized sequencing platform,” Derbyshire explained.
To solve for this gap in the market, they developed a third-generation genetic sequencing device, enabling fast and efficient at-home testing without the need to outsource DNA to a third party—an increasing concern for consumers who want to protect their personal data. “In the direct-to-consumer genetic testing market, companies subsidize the cost of genetic sequencing by selling consumer data to pharmacogenomic and research companies,” Derbyshire told us. “When it comes to your DNA, the most fundamental part of who you are, you want to keep that private. It also poses a huge biosecurity threat for the U.S. and for the world, really.”
A recent article by The Wall Street Journal reported that in the age of forensic genealogy, protecting genetic privacy is becoming even more challenging. Acorn Genetics is working to enable fast and efficient at-home testing without the need to outsource DNA to a third party or sell it to subsidize more expensive sequencing technologies. Derbyshire explained, “If you wake up in the morning and have a sore throat, you could just swab your mouth, sequence, and find out not only whether or not you have strep, but what strain of strep and what the best antibiotic is—and you can send that information privately to your doctor.”
Derbyshire’s passion for innovation began early. “I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship,” he told us. “I always wanted to run a company when I was a young child, but never really thought that I would end up there one day.” During high school, Derbyshire launched his first venture, selling bracelets to students and faculty. From there, he interned for a startup nonprofit, which led him to participate in Jumpstart, a pre-accelerator program at The Garage, Northwestern’s Entrepreneurship Center. There, Cornell was already designing a genetic sequencer. With his mind for business, Derbyshire knew his skills would complement Cornell’s experience, allowing them to create a successful product.
In 2021, Acorn Genetics was accepted to the I-Corps™ program, where they raised $50,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation. They went on to participate in our E-Team Program—both Pioneer and Propel—where they received $25,000 in grant funding and dedicated entrepreneurship training from our team of experienced mentors. “VentureWell giving you the support while you’re pursuing and building an idea and trying to create something is really the best education and the best experience that anyone could have being an entrepreneur,” Derbyshire said.
Since participating in the E-Team Program, Acorn Genetics has received $100,000 from the Thiel Fellowship, and it won second place in the Edward H. Molter Memorial Prizes for Wildcard Round at the 2022 Rice Business Plan Competition. The team went on to participate in our Aspire Medtech investor engagement program, and won the IMPACT Center’s OPENminds ChangemakerTech Award—including a $1,000 prize—at our OPEN 2023 conference during the signature OPENminds Innovator Showcase. Recently, Derbyshire pitched at the Aquillius Life Science Pitch Competition, winning second place overall.
The team has come a long way since developing the initial prototype for their sequencer. Still, Derbyshire continues to keep the perspective of their consumers in mind. “I really look at how our product impacts patients, researchers, and overall health,” he told us. “The big vision is to have an Acorn Lab in every home. We are really looking to decentralize genetic sequencing and diagnostics in general. We want to revolutionize the way that healthcare and that clinical medicine is delivered to patients.”
Recently, Acorn Genetics closed its $1 million pre-seed round with 1517 Fund, 10vc, and Northwestern University’s investment fund, NUseeds. The startup is well on its way to revolutionizing the healthcare industry.
Hear more from Derbyshire about his journey as an entrepreneur: