Canadians are polite, but we’re still recruiting your biotech talent, America

Canada made headlines during U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration for its efforts to lure STEM workers north. Trump is gone now, but Canada hasn’t stopped trying to recruit talent from its neighbor — and one of the hottest fronts in this talent war is biotech.

For generations of Canadian engineers, coders and researchers, Silicon Valley’s better salaries and weather were a siren call. But four years of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, policy and visa restrictions gave Canadian tech companies and governments a competitive advantage.

After Trump took office in 2016, Canada’s federal government boosted the tech ecosystems of cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver by creating a program to fast-track immigration. Canadian tech leaders climbed aboard with campaigns to tempt more workers north. In Quebec, the industry even persuaded Quebec’s notoriously immigration-shy provincial government to accept as many as 14% more newcomers.

The pandemic-driven exodus from Silicon Valley has sent large numbers of Canadian expatriates flocking home. The number of Canadians applying for the U.S. H-1B program has fallen dramatically, accelerating a decade-long trend.

Canadians have been broadly supportive of government spending to beat back COVID-19 and hasten the transition to a new economy.

Still, Canadian tech and political leaders remain concerned about the inbound flow of talent to key sectors like advanced manufacturing, clean tech and biotechnology. They’re pressing every button they can to chip away at long-held American advantages.

Much of the action is in biotech. COVID-19 has exposed Canada’s lack of vaccine manufacturing capacity, but the country has a vibrant biotech and life-sciences research sector, driven by an excellent university ecosystem and several thousand startup ventures doing cutting-edge research. Many of these firms have cashed in on the pandemic biotech investment boom, racking in a record amount of venture capital in 2020.

But while this influx has changed the funding landscape, many Canadian companies are still trying to reach scale. The Canadian tech ecosystem is full of talent but it hasn’t traditionally developed, recruited and retained enough of the senior people these firms need to develop into global powerhouses.

They don’t just need scientists — they need business leaders. A recent survey of Toronto-area hubs and ventures revealed that biomedical engineering, regenerative medicine and related firms are suffering significant shortages of senior executives, top managers and scientific specialists, who gravitate toward the better pay and opportunities of the U.S. industries.

At a recent summit of Canada’s Innovation Economy Council (IEC), which both our organizations belong to, industry leaders spoke of unfilled jobs in global regulatory affairs and business development, even chief medical officers. These are hybrid roles that require the kind of technical and business acumen forged from both academic training and progressive leadership roles in the workplace.

Canadian universities, hubs and venture-capital firms are reacting to this need by building specialized training institutes and programs. And scaling Canadian companies are trying to fill the gaps by using newly raised cash to recruit heavily in the U.S. and beyond, offering remote work and flexible work hours while striking partnerships and investigating untapped talent pools.

Against this backdrop, Canada’s federal government just delivered its first full budget in two years. It’s one of the most activist tech-spending plans the country has ever rolled out, showing how seriously the federal government is about building out advanced industries and creating STEM jobs at a time when global markets are moving away from the country’s traditional energy exports, natural resources and manufactured goods. The budget includes college research partnerships, hiring subsidies, grants, and support for incubators and hubs. Critically, there is also a $2.2 billion commitment for building a life-sciences talent pipeline.

Canadians have been broadly supportive of government spending to beat back COVID-19 and hasten the transition to a new economy. An IEC/Campaign Research poll conducted in early April found 3:1 public support for investments in postsecondary STEM education and similarly strong support for government investment in advanced manufacturing, including biotech. That’s just what it takes to compete with a neighbor 10 times your size.

It’s fair to say that Canada won’t drain the U.S. of all its research scientists and Big Pharma CEOs anytime soon. But with an influx of investment capital, a burgeoning tech ecosystem and a concerted policy effort to build, recruit and retain a self-sustaining talent ecosystem, it’s flying under the radar as a place the industry increasingly wants to be.

In other words, America, take note: Canada is actively working to attract your biotech talent.

#biotech, #canada, #column, #covid-19, #health, #startups, #stem, #tc, #tcuk, #toronto

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Molecule.one grows its drug synthesis AI platform with a $4.6M seed round

Polish computational chemistry outfit Molecule.one has raised $4.6M to expand its quest to bring theoretical drug molecules to reality. Its machine learning systems predict the best ways to synthesize potentially valuable molecules, a crucial part of creating new drugs and treatments.

Molecule.one went on stage at Disrupt SF 2019’s Startup Battlefield, where they explained the difficulty faced by the drug discovery industry, basically that they come up with lots of theoretical treatments but can’t actually make the molecules.

The company’s system enters play when you have some exotic new compound you want to make in order to test it in real life, but don’t know how to make it. After all, these molecules are brand new to science — no one has created them before, so why should anyone know? Molecule.one creates a workflow starting with ordinary off-the-shelf chemicals and provides step by step instructions using known methods of how to go from A to B… and to C, D, and so on (it’s rarely simple).

The company leverages machine learning and a large body of knowledge about chemical reactions to create these processes, though as CSO Stanisław Jastrzębski explained, they do it backwards.

“Synthesis planning can be characterized as a game,” he said. “In each move of this game, instead of moving a piece on a board, we break a chemical bond between a pair of atoms. The goal of the game is to break down a target molecule to molecules that can then be bought on the market and used to synthesize the target. We use algorithms similar to the ones used by DeepMind to master Go or chess to find the synthesis pathway.”

Co-founders Piotr Byrski and Paweł Włodarczyk-Pruszyński note that predicting organic reactions is no cakewalk, and that they have dedicated a great deal of resources towards making their system efficient and verifiable. The theoretical pathways they produce seem plausible but still need to be tested, something they do regularly internally so companies see that Molecule.one just selling good ideas but workable ones.

Since their debut at Disrupt, the company has acquired a number of customers with annual contracts, Byrski said, and rolled out lots of features on the platform. Włodarczyk-Pruszyński said that their efficiency has increased as well.

Molecule.one founders Piotr Byrski and Paweł Włodarczyk-Pruszyński in a lab.

Image Credits: Molecule.one

“Our system has matured and we have extended our platform to support planning synthesis for thousands of molecules per hour,” he said. “This feature is incredibly useful when combined with AI systems for drug discovery that generate huge numbers of candidate drug molecules. All these improvements helped us gain trust in the industry and initiate collaborations with relevant parties.”

Certainly the problem becomes one of scaling as your customers start asking about pathways for hundreds of thousands of possible therapeutic molecules rather than a handful. For them, if they are to bear the manufacturing cost, it’s worth the outlay at the start to see if one of the compounds they’re looking at is considerably easier to make than another with a similar effect. Without simulating the entire process that’s difficult to say for sure, so they can just send the list to Molecule.one and get the report back a few days later.

Screenshot of the Molecule.one interface, showing chemical structures.

Image Credits: Molecule.one

The team can’t share any of their customers’ successes (though presumably there have been some) because of course all this work is highly confidential. But they did say that like many companies in biotech they are doing what they can to support COVID-related therapies.

“We made part of our platform free to eligible researchers working on COVID drug discovery. This has resulted in a lasting collaboration with the LambdaZero project at MILA, which is advised by Prof. Yoshua Bengio,” said Byrski.

This also offered the opportunity to test their new scaling methods, since for such a project many candidate molecules must be evaluated, not just for efficacy but the capability of being manufactured easily.

“We are incredibly excited about this area in general because it enables traversing novel regions of the chemical space, which offers enormous promise in terms of looking for drugs that have not yet been synthesized,” Byrski said.

The funding round was led by Atmos Ventures, with a long list of participating investors: AME Cloud Ventures, Cherubic Ventures, Firlej Kastory, Inventures, Luminous Ventures, Sunfish Partners, and individuals including Bayer executive Sebastian Guth.

The company plans to use the money to expand the team and continue expanding generally; it also has a plan to open new offices in the U.S. and Western Europe (they’re based in Poland).

#artificial-intelligence, #battlefield, #biotech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #molecule-one, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

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Engine Biosciences expands its digital drug discovery pipeline with $43M round A

Drug discovery is a large and growing field, in which are to be found both ambitious startups and billion-dollar big pharma incumbents. Engine Biosciences is one of the former, a Singaporean outfit with with an expert founding crew and a different approach to the business of finding new therapeutics, and it just raised $43 million to keep growing.

Digital drug discovery in general means large-scale analysis of biological data like genes, gene expression, protein structures, binding sites, things like that. Where it has hit a wall in the past is not on the digital side, where any number of likely molecules or processes can be generated, but on the next step, when those notions need to be tested in vitro. So a new crop of biotech companies have worked to integrate these aspects.

Engine does so with a pair of tools it has dubbed NetMAPPR and CombiGEM. NetMAPPR is a huge sort of search engine for genes and gene interactions, taking especial note of “errors” that could provide a foothold for a molecule or treatment. CombiGEM is like a mass genetic testing process that can look into thousands of gene combinations and edits on diseased cells simultaneously, providing quick experimental confirmation of the targets and effects proposed by the digital side. The company is focused on anti-cancer drugs but is looking into other fields as they become viable.

Jeffrey Lu, Co-Founder and CEO, Engine Biosciences

Image Credits: Engine Biosciences

The focus on gene interactions sets their approach apart, said co-founder and CEO Jeffrey Lu.

“Gene interactions are relevant to all diseases, and in cancers, where we focus, a proven approach for effective precision medicines,” he explained. “For example, there are four approved drugs targeting the PARP enzyme in the context of mutation in the BRCA gene that is changing cancer treatment for millions of people. The fundamental principle of this precision medicine is based on understanding the gene interaction between BRCA and PARP.”

The company raised a $10M seed in 2018, and has been doing its thing ever since — but it needs more money if it’s going to bring some of these things to market.

“We already have chemical compounds directed towards the novel biology we have uncovered,” said Lu. “These are effectively prototype drugs, which are showing anti-cancer effects in diseased cells. We need to refine and optimize these prototypes to a suitable candidate to enter the clinic for testing in humans.”

Right now they’re working with other companies to do the next step up from automated testing, which is to say animal testing, to clear the way for human trials.

The CombiGEM experiments — hundreds of thousands of them — produce a large amount of data as well, and they’re sharing and collaborating on that front with several medical centers throughout Asia. “We have built what we believe to be the largest data compendium related to gene interactions in the context of cancer disease relevance,” said Lu, adding that this is crucial to the success of the machine learning algorithms they employ to predict biological processes.

The $43M round was led by Polaris Partners, with participation by newcomers Invus and a long list of existing investors. The money will go towards the requisite testing and paperwork involved in bringing a new drug to market based on promising leads.

“We have small molecule compounds for our lead cancer programs with data from in vitro (in cancer cells) experiments. We are refining the chemistry and expanding studies this year,” said Lu. “Next year, we anticipate having our first drug candidate enter the late preclinical phase of development and regulatory work for an IND (investigational new drug) filing with the FDA, and starting the clinical trials in 2023.”

It’s a long road to human trials, let alone widespread use, but that’s the risk any drug discovery startup takes. The carrot dangling in front of them is not just the possibility of a product that could generate billions in income, but perhaps save the lives of countless cancer patients awaiting novel therapies.

#artificial-intelligence, #biotech, #drug-discovery, #engine-biosciences, #funding, #fundings-exits, #recent-funding, #science, #startups, #tc

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‘It’s almost like placing an IV’: Brain monitoring electrode receives FDA 510(k) clearance

An FDA pathway that’s greased the gears for COVID-19 vaccines and drugs has paved the way for something else: a new take on electroencephalography (EEG), the established brain-monitoring technique in which metallic electrodes are placed on the scalp to measure the brain’s electrical activity. 

On May 17, DC-based startup iCE Neurosystems announced a version of FDA approval for a subcutaneous electrode called iCE-SG, designed to monitor the brain’s electrical activity from beneath the skin of the scalp. That electrode comes on the back of a 2020 Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for iCE Neurosystems’ software platform called iCEWav, which was used in a D.C. area hospital to monitor the brain activity of patients in medically-induced comas during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

iCE Neurosystems electrode and software are, essentially, a new take on traditional EEG. The electrode is designed to sit beneath the scalp for days and analyze brain activity, and the software component is designed to integrate that data with vital signs like heart rate or blood pressure. 

“For the first time we’ve got this massive, high-fidelity, continuous, integrated data set from both brain and body,” says Alan Waziri, a neurosurgeon and company co-founder. “That allows us to really understand what’s happening in the brain to drive timely clinical decisions, and fundamentally change outcomes for these patients.” 

iCE was founded by Waziri and colleagues from his time as a resident at Columbia University Medical Center in 2017. As of 2021, the company has nine fulltime employees, and has raised a total of $4.5 million, including a recent round of $2.95 million from private investors in April 2021. 

The subcutaneous electrode and software combination is part of iCE Neurosystems bigger picture: to create a full platform for continuous monitoring of the brain. 

There are examples of use cases where continuous monitoring may prove beneficial. For instance, a 2019 New England Journal of Medicine study suggested that specialized EEG monitoring might detect signs of consciousness in otherwise unresponsive patients. That study was authored by Jan Claassen the director of Critical Care Neurology at Columbia who is also co-founder and minority shareholder at iCE Neurosystems. 

Another 2019 paper suggests that continuous monitoring via EEG was associated with fewer deaths in hospitals. But only 22,728 of the over 7 million people analyzed in the study had access to continuous EEG. 

Waziri’s aim is to increase that number. Subcutaneous electrodes, he’s betting, are a first step. The iCE-SG electrodes should be easy to install and don’t require the technical expertise usually required to prepare and administer an EEG, explains Waziri. Other scientists have also noted technical expertise needed to use and interpret traditional EEG is cumbersome and has stood in the way of long-term EEG monitoring. 

FDA approval documents note that the iCE-SG devices are approved to remain beneath the skin for 14 days, but Waziri says he’s obtained continuous monitoring of brain activity for up to 35 days. A long-term EEG analysis, by comparison, might last several days. 

“It’s almost like placing an IV,” Waziri says. “Basically a routine clinician at the bedside can place these in under five minutes.”

On the other hand, the platform alone can’t address the need for expertise to interpret this data. Waziri’s answer to that question is to make this data shareable.

Within a hospital, data collected by platform is stored on the cloud. However, a hospital could opt into sharing data on another platform iCECloud Knowledge with other medical institutions. 

“From participating institutions, all the data we collect gets put in there and is made available to anyone who is using our system,” he says. “Our goal is to almost kind of crowdsource the analysis of the data.”

So far, iCENeurosystems has pursued two forms of FDA approval for the software and the electrode. 

The electrode and the full platform have received FDA premarket approval through the 510(k) pathway – a type of pre-market approval that allows a medical device to go to market without additional FDA review because it’s substantially similar to other products already on the market (In this case, that tech is a traditional EEG). The iCEWav system was granted 510(k) approval in March 2020 and the electrode received it in March 2021

This pathway is one of the most expedient ways to get a medical device onto the market, but has also faced criticism because it doesn’t require a device to be tested for safety or efficacy through clinical trials. Waziri says there “haven’t been any complications” from the devices. 

Additionally, iCEWave has done time in the clinical setting in a major D.C. hospital, though Waziri won’t disclose which one. 

In early 2020, the DC based startup iCE Neurosystems was in the midst of testing iCEWav when the pandemic hit. Some Covid-19 patients required intense cardiopulmonary support that required use of medically induced comas. Technicians typically use EEG to monitor these patients, but iCE Neurosystems also received a trial run, says Waziri, as the hospital was looking for long-term methods of monitoring patients brain activity without having technicians visit multiple times per day. 

“They had our system in place because we were running a clinical trial in patients with cardiac arrest, and they asked us if they could use the system for monitoring their critically ill COVID patients. They actually applied to the FDA and the FDA granted emergency use authorization for the software,” Waziri says. 

So far Waziri and iCENeurosystems hasn’t published any peer-reviewed data from that trial at the D.C. area hospital, but he says the company has two forthcoming manuscripts. 

Meanwhile, Waziri says that iCE Neurosystems is working towards getting more devices into more hospitals. He says they’re in talks with an additional five hospitals, with the goal of beginning a Series A funding raise in mid 2022. 

#biotech, #eeg, #electroencephalography, #fda, #health, #medical-device, #neuroscience, #software-platform, #tc

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Artificial raises $21M led by Microsoft’s M12 for a lab automation platform aimed at life sciences R&D

Automation is extending into every aspect of how organizations get work done, and today comes news of a startup that is building tools for one industry in particular: life sciences. Artificial, which has built a software platform for laboratories to assist with, or in some cases fully automate, research and development work, has raised $21.5 million.

It plans to use the funding to continue building out its software and its capabilities, to hire more people, and for business development, according to Artificial’s CEO and co-founder David Fuller. The company already has a number of customers including Thermo Fisher and Beam Therapeutics using its software directly and in partnership for their own customers. Sold as aLab Suite, Artificial’s technology can both orchestrate and manage robotic machines that labs might be using to handle some work; and help assist scientists when they are carrying out the work themselves.

“The basic premise of what we’re trying to do is accelerate the rate of discovery in labs,” Fuller said in an interview. He believes the process of bringing in more AI into labs to improve how they work is long overdue. “We need to have a digital revolution to change the way that labs have been operating for the last 20 years.”

The Series A is being led by Microsoft’s venture fund M12 — a financial and strategic investor — with Playground Global and AME Ventures also participating. Playground Global, the VC firm co-founded by ex-Google exec and Android co-creator Andy Rubin (who is no longer with the firm), has been focusing on robotics and life sciences and it led Artificial’s first and only other round. Artificial is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

Fuller hails from a background in robotics, specifically industrial robots and automation. Before founding Artificial in 2018, he was at Kuka, the German robotics maker, for a number of years, culminating in the role of CTO; prior to that, Fuller spent 20 years at National Instruments, the instrumentation, test equipment and industrial software giant. Meanwhile, Artificial’s co-founder, Nikhita Singh, has insight into how to bring the advances of robotics into environments that are quite analogue in culture. She previously worked on human-robot interaction research at the MIT Media Lab, and before that spent years at Palantir and working on robotics at Berkeley.

As Fuller describes it, he saw an interesting gap (and opportunity) in the market to apply automation, which he had seen help advance work in industrial settings, to the world of life sciences, both to help scientists track what they are doing better, and help them carry out some of the more repetitive work that they have to do day in, day out.

This gap is perhaps more in the spotlight today than ever before, given the fact that we are in the middle of a global health pandemic. This has hindered a lot of labs from being able to operate full in-person teams, and increased the reliance on systems that can crunch numbers and carry out work without as many people present. And, of course, the need for that work (whether it’s related directly to Covid-19 or not) has perhaps never appeared as urgent as it does right now.

There have been a lot of advances in robotics — specifically around hardware like robotic arms — to manage some of the precision needed to carry out some work, but up to now no real efforts made at building platforms to bring all of the work done by that hardware together (or in the words of automation specialists, “orchestrate” that work and data); nor link up the data from those robot-led efforts, with the work that human scientists still carry out. Artificial estimates that some $10 billion is spent annually on lab informatics and automation software, yet data models to unify that work, and platforms to reach across it all, remain absent. That has, in effect, served as a barrier to labs modernising as much as they could.

A lab, as he describes it, is essentially composed of high-end instrumentation for analytics, alongside then robotic systems for liquid handling. “You can really think of a lab, frankly, as a kitchen,” he said, “and the primary operation in that lab is mixing liquids.”

But it is also not unlike a factory, too. As those liquids are mixed, a robotic system typically moves around pipettes, liquids, in and out of plates and mixes. “There’s a key aspect of material flow through the lab, and the material flow part of it is much more like classic robotics,” he said. In other words, there is, as he says, “a combination of bespoke scientific equipment that includes automation, and then classic material flow, which is much more standard robotics,” and is what makes the lab ripe as an applied environment for automation software.

To note: the idea is not to remove humans altogether, but to provide assistance so that they can do their jobs better. He points out that even the automotive industry, which has been automated for 50 years, still has about 6% of all work done by humans. If that is a watermark, it sounds like there is a lot of movement left in labs: Fuller estimates that some 60% of all work in the lab is done by humans. And part of the reason for that is simply because it’s just too complex to replace scientists — who he described as “artists” — altogether (for now at least).

“Our solution augments the human activity and automates the standard activity,” he said. “We view that as a central thesis that differentiates us from classic automation.”

There have been a number of other startups emerging that are applying some of the learnings of artificial intelligence and big data analytics for enterprises to the world of science. They include the likes of Turing, which is applying this to helping automate lab work for CPG companies; and Paige, which is focusing on AI to help better understand cancer and other pathology.

The Microsoft connection is one that could well play out in how Artificial’s platform develops going forward, not just in how data is perhaps handled in the cloud, but also on the ground, specifically with augmented reality.

“We see massive technical synergy,” Fuller said. “When you are in a lab you already have to wear glasses… and we think this has the earmarks of a long-term use case.”

Fuller mentioned that one area it’s looking at would involve equipping scientists and other technicians with Microsoft’s HoloLens to help direct them around the labs, and to make sure people are carrying out work consistently by comparing what is happening in the physical world to a “digital twin” of a lab containing data about supplies, where they are located, and what needs to happen next.

It’s this and all of the other areas that have yet to be brought into our very AI-led enterprise future that interested Microsoft.

“Biology labs today are light- to semi-automated—the same state they were in when I started my academic research and biopharmaceutical career over 20 years ago. Most labs operate more like test kitchens rather than factories,” said Dr. Kouki Harasaki, an investor at M12, in a statement. “Artificial’s aLab Suite is especially exciting to us because it is uniquely positioned to automate the masses: it’s accessible, low code, easy to use, highly configurable, and interoperable with common lab hardware and software. Most importantly, it enables Biopharma and SynBio labs to achieve the crowning glory of workflow automation: flexibility at scale.”

Harasaki is joining Peter Barratt, a founder and general partner at Playground Global, on Artificial’s board with this round.

“It’s become even more clear as we continue to battle the pandemic that we need to take a scalable, reproducible approach to running our labs, rather than the artisanal, error-prone methods we employ today,” Barrett said in a statement. “The aLab Suite that Artificial has pioneered will allow us to accelerate the breakthrough treatments of tomorrow and ensure our best and brightest scientists are working on challenging problems, not manual labor.”

#artificial-intelligence, #augmented-reality, #automation, #biotech, #enterprise, #health, #life-sciences, #rd, #robotics, #science, #startups, #tc

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With $21M in funding, Code Ocean aims to help researchers replicate data-heavy science

Every branch of science is increasingly reliant on big data sets and analysis, which means a growing confusion of formats and platforms — more than inconvenient, this can hinder the process of peer review and replication of research. Code Ocean hopes to make it easier for scientists to collaborate by making a flexible, shareable format and platform for any and all datasets and methods, and it has raised a total of $21M to build it out.

Certainly there’s an air of “Too many options? Try this one!” to this (and here’s the requisite relevant XKCD). But Code Ocean isn’t creating a competitor to successful tools like Jupyter or Gitlab or Docker — it’s more of a small-scale container platform that lets you wrap up all the necessary components of your data and analysis in an easily shared format, whatever platform they live on natively.

The trouble appears when you need to share what you’re doing with another researcher, whether they’re on the bench next to you or at a university across the country. It’s important for replication purposes that data analysis — just like any other scientific technique — be done exactly the same way. But there’s no guarantee that your colleague will use the same structures, formats, notation, labels, and so on.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to share your work, but it does add a lot of extra steps as would-be replicators or iterators check and double check that all the methods are the same, that the same versions of the same tools are being used in the same order, with the same settings, and so on. A tiny inconsistency can have major repercussions down the road.

Turns out this problem is similar in a way to how many cloud services are spun up. Software deployments can be as finicky as scientific experiments, and one solution to this is containers, which like tiny virtual machines include everything needed to accomplish a computing task, in a portable format compatible with many different setups. The idea is a natural one to transfer to the research world, where you can tie up the data, the software used, and the specific techniques and processes used to reach a given result all in one tidy package. That, at least, is the pitch Code Ocean offers for its platform and “Compute Capsules.”

Diagram showing how a "compute capsule" includes code, environment, and data.

Say you’re a microbiologist looking at the effectiveness of a promising compound on certain muscle cells. You’re working in R, writing in RStudio on a Ubuntu machine, and your data are such and such collected during an in vitro observation. While you would naturally declare all this when you publish, there’s no guarantee anyone has an Ubuntu laptop with a working Rstudio setup around, so even if you provide all the code it might be for nothing.

If however you put it on Code Ocean, like this, it makes all the relevant code available, and capable of being inspected and run unmodified with a click, or being fiddled with if a colleague is wondering about a certain piece. It works through a single link and web app, cross platform, and can even be embedded on a webpage like a document or video. (I’m going to try to do that below, but our backend is a little finicky. The capsule itself is here.)

More than that, though, the Compute Capsule can be repurposed by others with new data and modifications. Maybe the technique you put online is a general purpose RNA sequence analysis tool that works as long as you feed it properly formatted data, and that’s something others would have had to code from scratch in order to take advantage of some platforms.

Well, they can just clone your capsule, run it with their own data, and get their own results in addition to verifying your own. This can be done via the Code Ocean website or just by downloading a zip file of the whole thing and getting it running on their own computer, if they happen to have a compatible setup. A few more example capsules can be found here.

Screenshot of the Code Ocean workbench environment.

Image Credits: Code Ocean

This sort of cross-pollination of research techniques is as old as science, but modern data-heavy experimentation often ends up siloed because it can’t easily be shared and verified even though the code is technically available. That means other researchers move on, build their own thing, and further reinforce the silo system.

Right now there are about 2,000 public compute capsules on Code Ocean, most of which are associated with a published paper. Most have also been used by others, either to replicate or try something new, and some, like ultra-specific open source code libraries, have been used by thousands.

Naturally there are security concerns when working with proprietary or medically sensitive data, and the enterprise product allows the whole system to run on a private cloud platform. That way it would be more of an internal tool, and at major research institutions that in itself could be quite useful.

Code Ocean hopes that by being as inclusive as possible in terms of codebases, platforms, compute services and so on will make for a more collaborative environment at the cutting edge.

Clearly that ambition is shared by others, as the the company has raised $21M so far, $6M of which was in previously undisclosed investments and $15M in an A round announced today. The A round was led by Battery Ventures, with Digitalis Ventures, EBSCO, and Vaal Partners participating as well as numerous others.

The money will allow the company to further develop, scale, and promote its platform. With luck they’ll soon find themselves among the rarefied air often breathed by this sort of savvy SaaS — necessary, deeply integrated, and profitable.

 

#biotech, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #code-ocean, #funding, #fundings-exits, #recent-funding, #saas, #science, #startups

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Huma, which uses AI and biomarkers to monitor patients and for medical research, raises $130M

While much of the world eagerly watches to see if the vaccination rollout helps curb and eventually stamp out Covid-19, one of the companies that has been helping to manage the spread of the virus is announcing a big round of funding on the heels for strong demand for its technology.

Huma, which combines data from biomarkers with predictive algorithms both to help monitor patients, and uses the same technology to help researchers and pharmaceutical companies run clinical trials, has closed an equity round of $130 million, a Series C that the company can extend to $200 million by way of a $70 million debt line if it chooses.

Huma can pick up data that patients contribute via smartphones, or by way of diagnostic devices that measure glucose, blood pressure or oxygen saturation, and the plan will be to use the funding to augment that in a couple of ways: to continue investing in R&D to both expand the kinds of biomarkers that Huma can measure and to work on more research and trials; to continue expanding London-based Huma’s business particularly in newer geographies like the US, alongside a strong wave of business it’s been seeing in Europe, specifically the UK and the DACH region.

The funding includes a number of high-profile strategic and financial backers that speak to some of the opportunities coming down the pike. Co-led by Leaps by Bayer, the VC division of the pharmaceutical and life sciences giant, and Hitachi Ventures, it also includes Samsung Next, Sony Innovation Fund by IGV (one of Sony’s investment funds), Unilever Ventures and HAT Technology & Innovation Fund, Nikesh Arora (the former president of SoftBank and ex-Google exec) and Michael Diekmann (Chairman of Allianz) all in the round. Bayer also led Huma’s $25 million Series B in 2019, when the startup was still called Medopad.

Medopad rebranded to Huma last year in April, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was really taking hold across the world. In the year since, CEO and founder Dan Vahdat said that the company has been on a growth tear, working hard across the spectrum of areas where its technology could prove useful, since it provides a bridge to monitoring patients remotely, at a time when it’s been significantly more challenging to see people in person.

“Last year when the pandemic first hit, it made everyone’s lives miserable not just from the health aspect but also research aspect,” he said. “The whole idea is how to decentralize care and research.”

Its work has included partnering with the NHS early on to ship some 1 million oxygen saturation devices to monitor how patients’ levels were faring, since that was early on discovered to be a leading indicator of whether a patient would need urgent medical care: this was essential way to triage people remotely at a time when hospitals were quickly getting overwhelmed with people. Vahdat said this directly helped reduce readmissions by one-third.

It is also playing a role in helping to monitor all the many patients who had been due to have operations but found those postponed. In the UK alone, there were 4.8 million people waiting as a result for their procedures, “a shocking number,” Vahdat said. How to handle that queue? The idea here, he said, is that when you are a patient at home waiting for cardiac surgery, your condition might deteriorate quickly. Or it may not. Huma set up a system to provide diagnostics for those patients to monitor how they were doing: signs that they were not doing well meant they would get moved up and brought in to be seen by a specialist before they deteriorated and became urgent rather than managed cases.

Alongside this clinical work, Huma has also been working on a number of trials and research, including a phase 4 study on one of the Covid-19 vaccines that has been getting distributed under emergency authorization (this is a regulatory process that comes in the wake of that authorization).

It’s also been continuing to contribute essential data to ongoing medical research. One that the company can disclose that is not directly related to Covid-19 is a heart study for Bayer; and one that is related to Covid-19 — finding better biomarkers (specifically in looking at digital phenotypes) to detect Covid-19 infections earlier — called the Cambridge Fenland study.

This long list of work has meant that Huma still has much of its Series B in the bank, and so it’s also been turning its attention to humanitarian work, donating resources to India and other countries still in the throes of their own Covid-19 crises.

Although startups that bridge the worlds of medicine and technology can be very long plays, the last year has shown not just how vital it is to invest in the smartest of these to see out their ambitions for the greater good of all of us, but that, when they do have their breakthroughs, it can prove to be a huge thing for the companies and investors. BioNTech’s last year has been nothing short of a stratospheric turnaround, going from a loss-making business to one producing more than $1 billion in profit in the last quarter on the back of its Covid-19 vaccine research and work with Pfizer.

It’s for that reason that so many investors are keen to continue supporting the likes of Huma and the insights it provides.

“Aligned with the vision of Leaps by Bayer, Huma’s expertise and technology will help drive a global paradigm shift towards prevention and care and may boost research efforts using data and digital technology,” said Juergen Eckhardt, Head of Leaps by Bayer, in a statement. “We invest into the most disruptive technologies of our time that have the potential to change the world for the better. As an early investor into Huma we know how perfectly the company fits into that frame as one of the leading digital innovators in healthcare and life sciences.”

“Huma has built a comprehensive remote patient monitoring platform and established a strong track-record and we are excited to be working with Huma to bring its world-leading health technology to new markets in Asia. We believe that together we can advance new digital health products to power better care and research for all,” added Keiji Kojima, EVP of Hitachi’s Smart Life division.

#artificial-intelligence, #biomarkers, #biotech, #covid-19, #europe, #funding, #health, #huma

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Berkeley has a big new biotech incubator in Bakar Labs

The University of California has always embraced the startup ecosystem in the state, including running a few of its own incubators and accelerators. Now Berkeley will have a huge new incubator of its own, Bakar Labs, which will host as many as 80 young companies a year and provide access university facilities and networks.

Hosted at the lovely brutalist Woon Hon Fai Hall, formerly the Berkeley Art Museum, the incubator is just part of the greater Bakar BioEnginuity Hub, an ongoing cross-disciplinary initiative within the university. It will be run by QB3, a pan-UC organization that organizes entrepreneurship efforts, and replaces a much smaller biotech-focused program at Berkeley.

Rather than provide a set curriculum of achieving product fit, building the team and so on that you might find at an accelerator, Bakar Labs will be more of a benevolent host with all the best toys. Berkeley is of course a world class research institution with an enviable faculty and extensive resources — and those in the incubator will have (limited) access to them.

Startups need not be affiliated with Berkeley in any way — the hub is hoping to attract founders from all over the place with its promise of inexpensive office and lab space and the aforementioned extensive resources. The term “incubator” seems apt for both the topic and the method — bring in the organisms, provide plenty of nutrients, and watch them grow.

Students in a lab space working in white coats.

Artist’s impression of what a lab space in Bakar will be like.

The relatively hands-off approach applies to funding as well. Companies will pay for their places at the Labs, but there’s no contract to sign over equity or first rights to Berkeley or its associated organs. A QB3 representative explained that investments may still occur, through an affiliated VC fund, but that it’s not baked into the program.

There’s no connection with Berkeley’s Skydeck, another university entrepreneurship program that has produced some highly valued companies in and out of biotech. The team that will be helping select companies for Bakar Labs helped Skydeck with its biotech applicants, so it seems going forward like there will be a friendly bifurcation of streams.

As for entry, companies will be judged on their potential (both business and scientific), but the exact requirements and preferences will no doubt be flexible. Managing director of Bakar Labs Gino Segre explained that they would hope a company has more on its mind than either a buyout or a big paper.

“We encourage teams with a double bottom line to apply– they aim to better human health and are pursuing a profit-driven business model. Entrepreneurship for good,” he wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “We are already seeing interest in therapeutics, diagnostics, research tool, foodtech and agtech.”

“The strongest teams will be two to 15 people, with operating capital for at least 6 months, and are leveraging an innovative technology for which a lab is required to advance their program,” he continued. There’s no limit on how long startups can stay, but after a couple years you might wonder whether there’s been a failure to launch. Ideally the startup raises money and moves to its own office and lab, but until that’s an option the incubator would be far superior to garages and temporarily vacated conference rooms.

“The Bakar BioEnginuity Hub holds enormous promise as a space for mobilizing our vibrant changemaking students and faculty, our powerful research enterprise, and a community of innovators who will maximize societal benefit over profit,” said UC Chancellor Carol T. Christ in a Berkeley news release.

If this all sounds like a good match for your company (or maybe your roommate’s, currently operating out of the spare bedroom) head over here to apply.

#accelerators, #berkeley, #biotech, #incubator, #science, #tc, #uc-berkeley

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Longevity startup Gero AI has a mobile API for quantifying health changes

Sensor data from smartphones and wearables can meaningfully predict an individual’s ‘biological age’ and resilience to stress, according to Gero AI.

The ‘longevity’ startup — which condenses its mission to the pithy goal of “hacking complex diseases and aging with Gero AI” — has developed an AI model to predict morbidity risk using ‘digital biomarkers’ that are based on identifying patterns in step-counter sensor data which tracks mobile users’ physical activity.

A simple measure of ‘steps’ isn’t nuanced enough on its own to predict individual health, is the contention. Gero’s AI has been trained on large amounts of biological data to spots patterns that can be linked to morbidity risk. It also measures how quickly a personal recovers from a biological stress — another biomarker that’s been linked to lifespan; i.e. the faster the body recovers from stress, the better the individual’s overall health prognosis.

A research paper Gero has had published in the peer-reviewed biomedical journal Aging explains how it trained deep neural networks to predict morbidity risk from mobile device sensor data — and was able to demonstrate that its biological age acceleration model was comparable to models based on blood test results.

Another paper, due to be published in the journal Nature Communications later this month, will go into detail on its device-derived measurement of biological resilience.

The Singapore-based startup, which has research roots in Russia — founded back in 2015 by a Russian scientist with a background in theoretical physics — has raised a total of $5 million in seed funding to date (in two tranches).

Backers come from both the biotech and the AI fields, per co-founder Peter Fedichev. Its investors include Belarus-based AI-focused early stage fund, Bulba Ventures (Yury Melnichek). On the pharma side, it has backing from some (unnamed) private individuals with links to Russian drug development firm, Valenta. (The pharma company itself is not an investor).

Fedichev is a theoretical physicist by training who, after his PhD and some ten years in academia, moved into biotech to work on molecular modelling and machine learning for drug discovery — where he got interested in the problem of ageing and decided to start the company.

As well as conducting its own biological research into longevity (studying mice and nematodes), it’s focused on developing an AI model for predicting the biological age and resilience to stress of humans — via sensor data captured by mobile devices.

“Health of course is much more than one number,” emphasizes Fedichev. “We should not have illusions about that. But if you are going to condense human health to one number then, for a lot of people, the biological age is the best number. It tells you — essentially — how toxic is your lifestyle… The more biological age you have relative to your chronological age years — that’s called biological acceleration — the more are your chances to get chronic disease, to get seasonal infectious diseases or also develop complications from those seasonal diseases.”

Gero has recently launched a (paid, for now) API, called GeroSense, that’s aimed at health and fitness apps so they can tap up its AI modelling to offer their users an individual assessment of biological age and resilience (aka recovery rate from stress back to that individual’s baseline).

Early partners are other longevity-focused companies, AgelessRx and Humanity Inc. But the idea is to get the model widely embedded into fitness apps where it will be able to send a steady stream of longitudinal activity data back to Gero, to further feed its AI’s predictive capabilities and support the wider research mission — where it hopes to progress anti-ageing drug discovery, working in partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.

The carrot for the fitness providers to embed the API is to offer their users a fun and potentially valuable feature: A personalized health measurement so they can track positive (or negative) biological changes — helping them quantify the value of whatever fitness service they’re using.

“Every health and wellness provider — maybe even a gym — can put into their app for example… and this thing can rank all their classes in the gym, all their systems in the gym, for their value for different kinds of users,” explains Fedichev.

“We developed these capabilities because we need to understand how ageing works in humans, not in mice. Once we developed it we’re using it in our sophisticated genetic research in order to find genes — we are testing them in the laboratory — but, this technology, the measurement of ageing from continuous signals like wearable devices, is a good trick on its own. So that’s why we announced this GeroSense project,” he goes on.

“Ageing is this gradual decline of your functional abilities which is bad but you can go to the gym and potentially improve them. But the problem is you’re losing this resilience. Which means that when you’re [biologically] stressed you cannot get back to the norm as quickly as possible. So we report this resilience. So when people start losing this resilience it means that they’re not robust anymore and the same level of stress as in their 20s would get them [knocked off] the rails.

“We believe this loss of resilience is one of the key ageing phenotypes because it tells you that you’re vulnerable for future diseases even before those diseases set in.”

“In-house everything is ageing. We are totally committed to ageing: Measurement and intervention,” adds Fedichev. “We want to building something like an operating system for longevity and wellness.”

Gero is also generating some revenue from two pilots with “top range” insurance companies — which Fedichev says it’s essentially running as a proof of business model at this stage. He also mentions an early pilot with Pepsi Co.

He sketches a link between how it hopes to work with insurance companies in the area of health outcomes with how Elon Musk is offering insurance products to owners of its sensor-laden Teslas, based on what it knows about how they drive — because both are putting sensor data in the driving seat, if you’ll pardon the pun. (“Essentially we are trying to do to humans what Elon Musk is trying to do to cars,” is how he puts it.)

But the nearer term plan is to raise more funding — and potentially switch to offering the API for free to really scale up the data capture potential.

Zooming out for a little context, it’s been almost a decade since Google-backed Calico launched with the moonshot mission of ‘fixing death’. Since then a small but growing field of ‘longevity’ startups has sprung up, conducting research into extending (in the first instance) human lifespan. (Ending death is, clearly, the moonshot atop the moonshot.) 

Death is still with us, of course, but the business of identifying possible drugs and therapeutics to stave off the grim reaper’s knock continues picking up pace — attracting a growing volume of investor dollars.

The trend is being fuelled by health and biological data becoming ever more plentiful and accessible, thanks to open research data initiatives and the proliferation of digital devices and services for tracking health, set alongside promising developments in the fast-evolving field of machine learning in areas like predictive healthcare and drug discovery.

Longevity has also seen a bit of an upsurge in interest in recent times as the coronavirus pandemic has concentrated minds on health and wellness, generally — and, well, mortality specifically.

Nonetheless, it remains a complex, multi-disciplinary business. Some of these biotech moonshots are focused on bioengineering and gene-editing — pushing for disease diagnosis and/or drug discovery.

Plenty are also — like Gero —  trying to use AI and big data analysis to better understand and counteract biological ageing, bringing together experts in physics, maths and biological science to hunt for biomarkers to further research aimed at combating age-related disease and deterioration.

Another recent example is AI startup Deep Longevity, which came out of stealth last summer — as a spinout from AI drug discovery startup Insilico Medicine — touting an AI ‘longevity as a service’ system which it claims can predict an individual’s biological age “significantly more accurately than conventional methods” (and which it also hopes will help scientists to unpick which “biological culprits drive aging-related diseases”, as it put it).

Gero AI is taking a different tack toward the same overarching goal — by honing in on data generated by activity sensors embedded into the everyday mobile devices people carry with them (or wear) as a proxy signal for studying their biology.

The advantage being that it doesn’t require a person to undergo regular (invasive) blood tests to get an ongoing measure of their own health. Instead our personal device can generate proxy signals for biological study passively — at vast scale and low cost. So the promise of Gero’s ‘digital biomarkers’ is they could democratize access to individual health prediction.

And while billionaires like Peter Thiel can afford to shell out for bespoke medical monitoring and interventions to try to stay one step ahead of death, such high end services simply won’t scale to the rest of us.

If its digital biomarkers live up to Gero’s claims, its approach could, at the least, help steer millions towards healthier lifestyles, while also generating rich data for longevity R&D — and to support the development of drugs that could extend human lifespan (albeit what such life-extending pills might cost is a whole other matter).

The insurance industry is naturally interested — with the potential for such tools to be used to nudge individuals towards healthier lifestyles and thereby reduce payout costs.

For individuals who are motivated to improve their health themselves, Fedichev says the issue now is it’s extremely hard for people to know exactly which lifestyle changes or interventions are best suited to their particular biology.

For example fasting has been shown in some studies to help combat biological ageing. But he notes that the approach may not be effective for everyone. The same may be true of other activities that are accepted to be generally beneficial for health (like exercise or eating or avoiding certain foods).

Again those rules of thumb may have a lot of nuance, depending on an individual’s particular biology. And scientific research is, inevitably, limited by access to funding. (Research can thus tend to focus on certain groups to the exclusion of others — e.g. men rather than women; or the young rather than middle aged.)

This is why Fedichev believes there’s a lot of value in creating a measure than can address health-related knowledge gaps at essentially no individual cost.

Gero has used longitudinal data from the UK’s biobank, one of its research partners, to verify its model’s measurements of biological age and resilience. But of course it hopes to go further — as it ingests more data. 

“Technically it’s not properly different what we are doing — it just happens that we can do it now because there are such efforts like UK biobank. Government money and also some industry sponsors money, maybe for the first time in the history of humanity, we have this situation where we have electronic medical records, genetics, wearable devices from hundreds of thousands of people, so it just became possible. It’s the convergence of several developments — technological but also what I would call ‘social technologies’ [like the UK biobank],” he tells TechCrunch.

“Imagine that for every diet, for every training routine, meditation… in order to make sure that we can actually optimize lifestyles — understand which things work, which do not [for each person] or maybe some experimental drugs which are already proved [to] extend lifespan in animals are working, maybe we can do something different.”

“When we will have 1M tracks [half a year’s worth of data on 1M individuals] we will combine that with genetics and solve ageing,” he adds, with entrepreneurial flourish. “The ambitious version of this plan is we’ll get this million tracks by the end of the year.”

Fitness and health apps are an obvious target partner for data-loving longevity researchers — but you can imagine it’ll be a mutual attraction. One side can bring the users, the other a halo of credibility comprised of deep tech and hard science.

“We expect that these [apps] will get lots of people and we will be able to analyze those people for them as a fun feature first, for their users. But in the background we will build the best model of human ageing,” Fedichev continues, predicting that scoring the effect of different fitness and wellness treatments will be “the next frontier” for wellness and health (Or, more pithily: “Wellness and health has to become digital and quantitive.”)

“What we are doing is we are bringing physicists into the analysis of human data. Since recently we have lots of biobanks, we have lots of signals — including from available devices which produce something like a few years’ long windows on the human ageing process. So it’s a dynamical system — like weather prediction or financial market predictions,” he also tells us.

“We cannot own the treatments because we cannot patent them but maybe we can own the personalization — the AI that personalized those treatments for you.”

From a startup perspective, one thing looks crystal clear: Personalization is here for the long haul.

 

#ageing, #api, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #biotech, #deep-neural-networks, #drug-development, #drug-discovery, #elon-musk, #gero-ai, #google, #health, #humanity-inc, #insilico-medicine, #insurance, #longevity, #machine-learning, #mobile, #mobile-devices, #peter-thiel, #russia, #science, #smartphones, #tc, #wearable-devices

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COVID Innovations: Vaccines for Variants, Drone Deliveries, Print-Your-Own Shots, and More

Next-generation COVID-19 vaccines will not only tackle different versions of the virus but will provide solutions across the world at a fraction of the cost

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#biotech, #health, #medicine

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2021 should be a banner year for biotech startups that make smart choices early

Last year was a record 12 months for venture-backed biotech and pharma companies, with deal activity rising to $28.5 billion from $17.8 billion in 2019. As vaccines roll out, drug development pipelines return to normal, and next-generation therapies continue to hold investor interest, 2021 is on pace to be another blockbuster year.

The median step up in valuations from seed to Series A is now 2x, higher than in all later rounds. As a result, biotech startups will continue to attract more investment at earlier stages from a larger, more diverse pool of venture capitalists.

This may also change the nature of biotech founders themselves: As a blog post from Y Combinator suggests, these founders are trending younger and perhaps less willing to cede control to VCs and hired executives than they might have in years past (i.e., via the “venture creation” model so predominant among early-stage biotech companies).

Founders are some of the most creative people out there, but legal documentation should be anything but.

As longtime members of the biotech startup community — as executives, entrepreneurs, advisors and legal counsel — we’ve seen our fair share of founder missteps early in the fundraising journey result in severe consequences.

In this exciting moment, when younger founders will likely receive more attention, capital and control than ever, it’s crucial to avoid certain pitfalls.

Clarity trumps creativity

Founders are some of the most creative people out there, but legal documentation should be anything but. Keep it as simple and clear as possible. That means using National Venture Capital Corporation documents that everyone knows and understands, as well as keeping organized documentation for employee intellectual property (IP) assignment and NDAs, option grants, independent contractor agreements, tax documents and other key contracts and paperwork.

#biotech, #biotechnology, #column, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #funding, #private-equity, #startups, #venture-capital

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C2i, a genomics SaaS product to detect traces of cancer, raises $100M Series B

If you or a loved one has ever undergone a tumor removal as part of cancer treatment, you’re likely familiar with the period of uncertainty and fear that follows. Will the cancer return, and if so, will the doctors catch it at an early enough stage? C2i Genomics has developed software that’s 100x more sensitive in detecting residual disease, and investors are pouncing on the potential. Today, C2i announced a $100 million Series B led by Casdin Capital. 

“The biggest question in cancer treatment is, ‘Is it working?’ Some patients are getting treatment they don’t benefit from and they are suffering the side effects while other patients are not getting the treatment they need,” said Asaf Zviran, co-founder and CEO of C2i Genomics in an interview.

Historically, the main approach to cancer detection post-surgery has been through the use of MRI or X-ray, but neither of those methods gets super accurate until the cancer progresses to a certain point. As a result, a patient’s cancer may return, but it may be a while before doctors are able to catch it.

Using C2i’s technology, doctors can order a liquid biopsy, which is essentially a blood draw that looks for DNA. From there they can sequence the entire genome and upload it to the C2i platform. The software then looks at the sequence and identifies faint patterns that indicate the presence of cancer, and can inform if it’s growing or shrinking.

“C2i is basically providing the software that allows the detection and monitoring of cancer to a global scale. Every lab with a sequencing machine can process samples, upload to the C2i platform and provide detection and monitoring to the patient,” Zviran told TechCrunch.

C2i Genomics’ solution is based on research performed at the New York Genome Center (NYGC) and Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM) by Dr. Zviran, along with Dr. Dan Landau, faculty member at the NYGC and assistant professor of medicine at WCM, who serves as scientific co-founder and member of C2i’s scientific advisory board. The research and findings have been published in the medical journal, Nature Medicine.

While the product is not FDA-approved yet, it’s already being used in clinical research and drug development research at NYU Langone Health, the National Cancer Center of Singapore, Aarhus University Hospital and Lausanne University Hospital.

When and if approved, New York-based C2i has the potential to drastically change cancer treatment, including in the areas of organ preservation. For example, some people have functional organs, such as the bladder or rectum, removed to prevent cancer from returning, leaving them disabled. But what if the unnecessary surgeries could be avoided? That’s one goal that Zviran and his team have their minds set on achieving.

For Zviran, this story is personal. 

“I started my career very far from cancer and biology, and at the age of 28 I was diagnosed with cancer and I went for surgery and radiation. My father and then both of my in-laws were also diagnosed, and they didn’t survive,” he said.

Zviran, who today has a PhD in molecular biology, was previously an engineer with the Israeli Defense Force and some private companies. “As an engineer, looking into this experience, it was very alarming to me about the uncertainty on both the patients’ and physicians’ side,” he said.

This round of funding will be used to accelerate clinical development and commercialization of the company’s C2-Intelligence Platform. Other investors that participated in the round include NFX, Duquesne Family Office, Section 32 (Singapore), iGlobe Partners and Driehaus Capital.

#artificial-intelligence, #biotech, #blood-test, #c2i-genomics, #cancer, #cancer-screening, #cancer-treatment, #casdin-capital, #cloud, #cornell, #drug-development, #fda, #funding, #health, #imaging, #mri, #new-york-university, #radiation, #recent-funding, #saas, #startups, #surgery, #tc, #tumor, #x-ray

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Watch a monkey equipped with Elon Musk’s Neuralink device play Pong with its brain

Elon Musk’s Neuralink, one of his many companies and the only one currently focused on mind control (that we’re aware of), has released a new blog post and video detailing some of its recent updates — including using its hardware to make it possible for a monkey to play pong with only its brain.

In the video above, Neuralink demonstrates how it used its sensor hardware and brain implant to record a baseline of activity from this macaque (named ‘Pager’) as it played a game on-screen where it had to move a token to different squares using a joystick with its hand. Using that baseline data, Neuralink was able to use machine learning to anticipate where Pager was going to be moving the physical controller, and was eventually able to predict it accurately before the move was actually made. Researchers then removed the paddle entirely, and eventually did the same thing with Pong, ultimately ending up at a place where Pager no longer was even moving its hand on the air on the nonexistent paddle, and was instead controlling the in-game action entirely with its mind via the Link hardware and embedded neural threads.

The last we saw of Neuralink, Musk himself was demonstrating the Link tech live in August 2020, using pigs to show how it was able to read signals from the brain depending on different stimuli. This new demo with Pager more clearly outlines the direction that the tech is headed in terms of human applications, since, as the company shared on its blog, the same technology could be used to help patients with paralysis manipulate a cursor on a computer, for instance. That could be applied to other paradigms as well, including touch controls on an iPhone, and even typing using a virtual keyboard, according to the company.

Musk separately tweeted that in fact, he expects the initial version of Neuralink’s product to be able to allow someone with paralysis that prevents standard modes of phone interaction to use one faster than people using their thumbs for input. He also added that future iterations of the product would be able to enable communication between Neuralinks in different parts of a patient’s body, transmitting between an in-brain node and neural pathways in legs, for instance, making it possible for “paraplegics to walk again.”

These are obviously bold claims, but the company cites a lot of existing research that undergirds its existing demonstrations and near-term goals. Musk’s more ambitious claims, should, like all of his projections, definitely be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. He did add that he hopes human trials will begin to get underway “hopefully later this year,” for instance – which is already two years later than he was initially anticipating those might start.

#biotech, #bmi, #elon, #elon-musk, #iphone, #machine-learning, #musk, #neuralink, #pager, #paralysis, #pong, #science, #science-and-technology, #tc, #technology, #transhumanism

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Highlights from Berkeley SkyDeck’s virtual demo day

With 17 startups participating, Berkeley SkyDeck’s Demo Day isn’t the largest cohort we’ve seen by any stretch. The collection of companies is, however, defined by a wide range of focuses, from pioneering diabetes treatments to retrofitting autonomous trucking, curated by the SkyDeck’s small team and a number of advisors.

Founded in 2012, the accelerator is focused on developing early-stage companies tied to the University of California system. Applicants must be affiliated with either one of the 10 UC schools or their national laboratories in Berkeley, Livermore and Los Alamos. Notable alumni include micromobility unicorn, Lime, and delivery robotics firm, Kiwi.

In 2020, SkyDeck — along with much of the rest of the world — went virtual.

“While flight restrictions did cause some international founders to pull crazy hours from our home countries to participate in the sessions, virtual sessions allowed additional members of our teams to participate that would otherwise not have been able to do so,” the accelerator’s organizers said in a TechCrunch post last year. “We are also hearing chatter that Demo Day will be larger than ever before because virtual events are much more scalable.”

The 17 startups presenting today were whittled down from 1,850 applicants, according to the accelerator. Being a member of the cohort involves six months of launch  assistance from SkyDeck, coupled with up $105,000. “In six months, you’re going to pitch on stage at demo day, to an institutional investor in your industry,” Executive Director Caroline Winnett tells TechCrunch.

Here’s a closer look at six highlights from this Demo Day.

EndoCrine

Image Credits: EndoCrine Bio, Inc.

Building on technologies developed in the stem cell research labs of UCSF, EndoCrine is looking to commercialize a better way to discover and develop drugs. Specifically, the startup is hoping to improve diabetes treatment beyond standard insulin injections.

“EndoCrine’s proprietary human stem cell-derived islet platform revolutionizes the drug discovery and development process, saving years of time and millions of dollars usually spent by pharma companies,” CEO Gopika Nair said in a statement offered to TechCrunch. “Our innovative solution opens an exciting era of personalized medicine in diabetes.”

The company says SkyDeck helped it take the earliest steps out of the lab and into startup mode.

NuPort Robotics

Image Credits: NuPort Robotics Inc.

NuPort Robotics is among the most mature of the 17 startups included here. In fact, in mid-March, the startup signed a partnership with Canadian Tire and the Ontario government, as part of a $3 million investment in an autonomous middle-mile trucking solution.

Rather than building autonomous trucking from scratch, NuPort’s solution is designed to retrofit semis with autonomous technologies.

“This results in operational cost reduction by eliminating the need to replace their existing fleet and yields a safer, more efficient and sustainable transportation system,” CEO Raghavender Sahdev tells TechCrunch.

The Hurd Co.

Image Credits: The Hurd Co.

The Hurd Co.’s goal is simple: reduce the environmental impact of clothing companies by helping to remove trees from the process. Specifically, the company creates cellulosic fiber pulp from agricultural byproducts. This is designed to bypass tree-based agrilose, which is used in the production of a wide variety of fabrics, including rayon.

“Apparel brands are scrambling for new, low-impact fabric that will allow them to meet their ambitious sustainability goals,” CEO Taylor Heisley-Cook tells TechCrunch. “We completely eliminate trees from the supply chain with a hyper-efficient process that dramatically reduces brands’ impact on the environment.”

The company says its process uses half the water and significantly less energy than standard processes. The technology was developed by Hurd’s CTO, Charles Cai.

Humm

Image Credits: Humm

I won’t lie, this is the one in the batch I have the most questions about, having seen a number of companies claim their wearables can increase memory.

Here’s what CEO Iain McIntyre has to say: “It’s ideal for activities that depend on memory, like reading, problem solving or multi-tasking. The Humm patch uses tACS (transcranial alternating stimulation) and in clinical research studies, the Humm patch saw a measurable (+~20%) improvement against placebo.”

It’s an interesting underlying technology, and the advisors — which include a number of university professors in the sciences — certainly see commercial potential. There are some lingering questions around tACS.

Quoting Scientific American from January: “The potential therapeutic effects of tACS on memory, food craving and other neural processes have been tested in dozens of studies in the past. Questions have been raised about whether this method actually exerts any meaningful changes in the brain, however.”

Definitely interested in seeing more about this one and perhaps taking it for a spin when the product ships, later this year.

Publica

As far as elevator pitches go, Publica may have the best one of the show. “Publica is Shopify for Digital Content.” Essentially, the company wants to be a direct conduit between content creators and consumers.

“Publica is a service that enables authors and content creators to have their own custom storefront to share, market and sell e-books, audiobooks and any other types of digital content with no intermediaries,” CEO Pablo Laurino tells TechCrunch. “In the era of D2C and marketplaces, Publica helps authors and content to achieve that on their own storefront, offering authors complete control over their brand and ownership of the relationships.”

The system helps creators make their own own digital storefront to sell a wide variety of products, including audiobooks and e-books. The site is already up and running, with more than 1,200 stores created by 250 clients.

Serinus Labs

Image Credits: Serinus Labs

Serinus is developing a warning system for detecting failure in lithium-ion batteries.

Per CEO, Hossain Fahad, “Battery safety is the biggest challenge in the EV industry today. Serinus Labs’ proprietary LiCANS technology provides early warning signals to prevent catastrophic battery failure in electric vehicles.”

The tech uses gas sensing to detect early traces of vented gases that occur prior to battery failure.

#automotive, #berkeley, #biotech, #funding, #hardware, #humm, #robotics, #skydeck, #startups, #uc-berkeley, #venture-capital

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Vibrant raises $7.5M for a drug-free mechanical pill to treat constipation

Vibrant, a medical technology company that’s developed a disposable vibrating pill to treat chronic constipation, today announced its Series E for $7.5 million. The company is based in Tel Aviv and is lead by Lior Ben-Tsur, a startup veteran. Since its founding in 2007, the company has raised a total of $25 million. This round is being led by Unorthodox Ventures with participation by Sequoia.

Vibrant, which is going through its third and final round of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) testing, plans to launch in the U.S. in the next year. The capsules are about the size of a multi-vitamin, Ben-Tsur said.

“Patients are used to taking drugs day in and day out, so this wouldn’t be a different experience in that regard, but this pill doesn’t have any medication,” Ben-Tsur said. While Ben-Tsur is not a founder, he was brought on about 10 years ago to serve as the company’s CEO.

According to a study published in the American Gastroenterological Association, about 16% of American adults suffer from constipation, and the number jumps to 33.5% in adults between the ages of 60-101. Also, constipation is 1.5 times more common in women than in men.

The most common way to treat constipation is through the use of over-the-counter or prescription drugs, most of which target the nerves in the colon which in turn prompt a bowel movement. The Vibrant Capsule, however, “once swallowed, kickstarts the natural impulses of your intestinal wall to contract, relax and get things moving again — without the use of chemicals,” the company said in a statement.

In addition to being medication-free, the value of Vibrant over laxatives, according to the company, is that the bowel movements are more controlled, whereas laxatives can cause unexpected diarrhea and long-term side effects. Also, while laxatives are meant to be taken on a daily basis, the disposable capsule can be used anywhere from 2-5 times per week. The capsules connect to an app that automatically records when you take a pill, and upon having a bowel movement, the person notes it in the app which then sends a monthly report to the patient’s doctor, allowing them to monitor and adjust the treatment protocol as necessary.

In a 2019 human trial organized by Vibrant, 250 patients were enrolled in a double-blind study (Vibrant Capsule = 133, placebo = 117). The results showed that those who took the Vibrant Capsule were more likely to experience a bowel movement within three hours. The trial details and the results were published in the journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility.

Several years ago a group of doctors and engineers performed a test in a live pig’s colon, and accidentally pinched the side of the colon wall. As a result, they noticed that the pig promptly had a bowel movement. The test was actually about something totally unrelated to constipation, and the results were a random discovery. To replicate the effects, the team created a vibrating belt that when worn for about three hours, would also cause a bowel movement.

“The problem is no one wants to shake for three hours to have a bowel movement,” said Ben-Tsur. With this information in hand, the group set out to develop a treatment for constipation in humans that would produce similar results but where the vibrations couldn’t be felt. There were other mechanical capsules already on the market such as the Smart Pill, a mechanical diagnostic capsule that reports on generalized motility through the entire digestive tract and aids doctors in diagnosing motility disorders, so the team knew that people could safely swallow and excrete capsules.

According to Ben-Tsur, there hasn’t been any development in the treatment of constipation in the last 20 years — the treatment protocol has continued to focus on medication. When he learned about the market size, the lack of innovation in the space, and the potential, he was convinced that he wanted to lead Vibrant.

Vibrant plans on using this round of funding to take the capsule to market in the U.S. — its first market. The company is currently speaking with healthcare providers and insurance companies so that the capsule will be covered by insurance starting at the time of launch. The Smart Pill, while only used once as a diagnostic test, is still not covered and costs, on average, about $1,400 out of pocket. Ben-Tsur and his team aim to offer a product that is accessible. “From day one we were on a mission to build something that wouldn’t be more expensive than existing drugs,” he said.

#biotech, #capsule, #ceo, #chemicals, #food-and-drug-administration, #health, #health-tech, #insurance, #medical-tech, #medical-technology, #tc, #tel-aviv, #united-states

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Y Combinator’s biotech startups incubate a new generation of therapies and tools

Medical and biotech had a strong showing at Y Combinator’s latest demo day, with nearly a dozen companies in the space catching my eye. The things a startup can accomplish in this space are astonishing these days, so don’t be surprised if a few of these companies are headline news in the next year.

Startups take on big pharma

Atom Bioworks has one of the shortest timelines and highest potential impacts; as I wrote in our second set of favorites from demo day, the company seems to be fairly close to one of the holy grails of biochemistry, a programmable DNA machine. These tools can essentially “code” a molecule so that it reliably sticks to a specific substance or cell type, which allows a variety of follow-up actions to be taken.

For instance, a DNA machine could lock onto COVID-19 viruses and then release a chemical signal indicating infection before killing the virus. The same principle applies to a cancer cell. Or a bacterium. You get the picture.

Atom’s founders have published the details of their techniques in Nature Chemistry, and says it’s working on a COVID-19 test as well as therapies for the virus and other conditions. It expects sales in the 9-figure range.

Another company along these lines is LiliumX. This company is going after “biospecific antibodies,” which are kind of like prefab DNA machines. Our own antibodies learn to target various pathogens, waste, and other items the body doesn’t want, and customized, injected antibodies can do the same for cancer cells.

LiliumX is taking the algorithmic approach to generating potential antibody stuctures that could be effective, as many AI-informed biotech companies have before it. But the company is also using a robotic testing setup to thin the herd and get in vitro results for its more promising candidates. Going beyond lead generation is a difficult step but one that makes the company that much more valuable.

Entelexo is one step further down the line, having committed to developing a promising class of therapeutics called exosomes that could help treat autoimmune diseases. These tiny vesicles (think packages for inter-cell commerce) can carry all kinds of materials, including customized mRNA that can modify another cell’s behavior.

Modifying cell behavior systematically could help mitigate conditions like multiple sclerosis, though the company did not elaborate on the exact mechanism — probably not something that can be explained in under a minute. They’re already into animal testing, which is surprising for a startup.

One step further, at least mechanically, is Nuntius Therapeutics, which is working on ways to deliver cell-specific (i.e. to skeletal muscle, kidney cells, etc) DNA, RNA, and CRISPR-based therapies. This is an issue for cutting-edge treatments: while they can be sure of taking the correct action once in contact with the target cell type, they can’t be sure that the therapeutic agent will ever reach those cells. Like ambulance drivers without an address, they can’t do their jobs if they can’t get there.

Nuntius claims to have created a reliable way to deliver genetic therapy payloads to a variety of target cells, beyond what major pharma companies like Moderna have accomplished. The company also develops and licenses its own drugs, so it’s practically a one-stop shop for genetic therapies if its techniques pan out for human use.

Beyond providing therapeutics, there is the evolving field of artificial organs. These are still highly experimental, partly due to the risk of rejection even when using biocompatible materials. Trestle Biotherapeutics is taking on a specific problem — kidney failure — with implantable lab-grown kidney tissue that can help get these patients off dialysis.

While the plan is to eventually create full kidney replacements, the truth is that for people with this condition, every week and month counts. Not only does it improve their chances of finding a donor or moving up the list, but regular dialysis is a horrible process by all accounts. Anything that reduces the need to rely on it would be welcomed by millions.

This Yale-Harvard tie-up comes from a team with quite a bit of experience in stem cell science and tissue engineering, including 3D printing human tissues — which no doubt is part of the approach.

Beyond therapy

Moving beyond actual techniques for fighting various conditions, the YC batch had quite a few dedicated to improving the process of researching and understanding those conditions and techniques.

Many industries rely on cloud-based document platforms like Google Docs for sharing and collaboration, but while copywriters and sales folks probably find the standard office suite sufficient, that’s not necessarily the case for scientists whose disciplines demand special documentation and formatting.

Curvenote is a shared document platform built with these folks in mind; it integrates with Jupyter, SaturnCloud, and Sagemaker, supports lots of import and export options, integrates visualization plug-ins like Plotly, and versions through Git. Now you just have to convince the head of your department it’s worth paying for.

Lab notes in Jupyter on a laptop screen.

Image Credits: Curvenote

A more specialized cloud tool can be found in Pipe|bio, which does hosted bioinformatics for developing antibody drugs like LiliumX. It’s hard to get into details here beyond that the computational and database needs of companies in biotech can be very specific and not everyone has a bioinformatics specialist on staff.

Having a tool you can just pay for instead getting a data science grad student to moonlight for your lab is almost always preferable. (Also preferable is not using special characters in your company name — just saying, it’s going to come up.)

Special tools can be found on the benchtop as well as the laptop, though, and the remaining companies are firmly in meatspace.

Animated diagram of a cell shrinking and fluorescing in a cross shape.Forcyte is another company I highlighted in our favorite demo day companies roundups: It’s less about chemistry and molecular biology than the actual physical phenomena experienced by cells. This is a difficult thing to observe systematically, but important for many reasons.

The company uses a micropatterned surface to observe individual cells and watch specifically for contraction and other shape changes. Physical constriction or relaxation of cells is at the heart of several major diseases and their treatments, so being able to see and track it will be extremely helpful for researchers.

The company has positioned itself as a way to test drugs at scale that affect these properties and claims to have already found promising compounds for lung fibrosis. Forcyte’s team is published in Nature, and received a $2.5 million SBIR award from the NIH, a pretty rare endorsement.

Kilobaser's DNA sequencing device on a lab bench.

Image Credits: Kilobaser

Kilobaser is taking aim at the growing DNA synthesizing space; companies often contract with dedicated synthesizing labs to create batches of custom DNA molecules, but at a small scale this might be better done in-house.

Kilobaser’s benchtop machine makes the process as simple as using a copier, letting people with no technical know-how. As long as it has some argon, a reagent supply and microfluidic chip (sold by the company, naturally), it can replicate DNA you submit digitally in under two hours. This could accelerate testing in many a small lab that’s held back by its reliance on a separate facility. The company has already sold 15 machines at €15,000 each — but like razor blades, the real money is in the refills.

Video of a robotic arm filling vials.

Image Credits: Reshape Biotech

Reshape Biotech is perhaps the most straightforward of the bunch. Its approach to automating common lab tasks is to create custom robots for each one. That’s it! Of course, that’s easier said than done, but given the similarity of many lab layouts and equipment, a custom robotic sampler or autoclave could be adopted by thousands as (again) an alternative to hiring another part time grad student.

There were several other companies in the biotech and medical space worth looking at in the batch, but not enough space here to highlight them individually. Suffice it to say that the space is increasingly welcoming to startups as advances in tech and software are brought to bear where insuperable barriers to entry once left such possibilities remote.

#biotech, #startups, #tc, #y-combinator

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Ghana’s Redbird raises $1.5M seed to expand access to rapid medical testing in sub-Saharan Africa

For patients and healthcare professionals to properly track and manage illnesses especially chronic ones, healthcare needs to be decentralized. It also needs to be more convenient, with a patient’s health information able to follow them wherever they go.

Redbird, a Ghanaian healthtech startup that allows easy access to convenient testing and ensures that doctors and patients can view the details of those test results at any time, announced today that it has raised a $1.5 million seed investment.  

Investors who participated in the round include Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Newton Partners (via the Imperial Venture Fund), and Founders Factory Africa. This brings the company’s total amount raised to date to $2.5 million.

The healthtech company was launched in 2018 by Patrick Beattie, Andrew Quao and Edward Grandstaff. As a founding scientist at a medical diagnostics startup in Boston, Beattie’s job was to develop new rapid diagnostic tests. During his time at Accra in 2016, he met Quao, a trained pharmacist in Ghana at a hackathon whereupon talking found out that their interests in medical testing overlapped.

Beattie says to TechCrunch that while he saw many exciting new tests in development in the US, he didn’t see the same in Ghana. Quao, who is familiar with how Ghanaians use pharmacies as their primary healthcare point, felt perturbed that these pharmacies weren’t doing more than transactional purchases.

They both settled that pharmacies in Ghana needed to imbibe the world of medical testing. Although both didn’t have a tech background, they realized technology was necessary to execute this. So, they enlisted the help of Grandstaff to be CTO of Redbird while Beattie and Quao became CEO and COO, respectively.

L-R: Patrick Beattie (CEO), Andrew Quao (COO), and Edward Grandstaff (CTO)

Redbird enables pharmacies in Ghana to add rapid diagnostic testing for 10 different health conditions to their pharmacy services. These tests include anaemia, blood sugar, blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol, Hepatitis B, malaria, typhoid, prostate cancer screening, and pregnancy.  

Also, Redbird provides pharmacies with the necessary equipment, supplies and software to make this possible. The software —  Redbird Health Monitoring — is networked across all partner pharmacies and enables patients to build medical testing records after going through 5-minute medical tests offered through these pharmacies.

Rather than employing a SaaS model that Beattie says is not well appreciated by its customers, Redbird’s revenue model is based on the supply of disposable test strips.

“Pharmacies who partner with Redbird gain access to the software and all the ways Redbird supports our partners for free as long as they purchase the consumables through us. This aligns our revenue with their success, which is aligned with patient usage,” said the CEO.

This model is being used with over over 360 pharmacies in Ghana, mainly in Accra and Kumasi. It was half this number in 2019, and Redbird was able to double this number despite the pandemic. These pharmacies have recorded over 125,000 tests in the past three years from more than 35,000 patients registered on the platform.

Redbird will use the seed investment to grow its operations within Ghana and expand to new markets that remain undisclosed.

In 2018, Redbird participated in the Alchemist Accelerator just a few months before launch. It was the second African startup after fellow Ghanaian startup mPharma to take part in the six-month-long program. The company also got into Founders Factory Africa last year April.

According to Beattie, most of the disease burden Africans might experience in the future will be chronic diseases. For instance, diabetes is projected to grow by 156% over the next 25 years. This is why he sees decentralized, digitized healthcare as the next leapfrog opportunity for sub-Saharan Africa.

“Chronic disease is exploding and with it, patients require much more frequent interaction with the healthcare system. The burden of chronic disease will make a health system that is highly centralized impossible,” he said.Like previous leapfrog events, this momentum is happening all over the world, not just in Africa. Still, the state of the current infrastructure means that healthcare systems here will be forced to innovate and adapt before health systems elsewhere are forced to, and therein lies the opportunity,” he said.

But while the promise of technology and data is exciting, it’s important to realize that healthtech only provides value if it matches patient behaviors and preferences. It doesn’t really matter what amazing improvements you can realize with data if you can’t build the data asset and offer a service that patients actually value.

Beattie knows this all too well and says Redbird respects these preferences. For him, the next course of action will be to play a larger role in the world’s developing ecosystem where healthcare systems build decentralised networks and move closer to the average patient.

This decentralised approach is what attracted U.S. and South African early-stage VC firm Newtown Partners to cut a check. Speaking on behalf of the firm, Llew Claasen, the managing partner, had this to say.

“We’re excited about Redbird’s decentralised business model that enables rapid diagnostic testing at the point of primary care in local community pharmacies. Redbird’s digital health record platform has the potential to drive significant value to the broader healthcare value chain and is a vital step toward improving healthcare outcomes in Africa. We look forward to supporting the team as they prove out their  business model and scale across the African continent.”

#africa, #biotech, #chronic-disease, #cto, #diabetes, #enterprise, #founders-factory, #funding, #ghana, #health-systems, #healthcare, #redbird, #startups, #tc

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Curran Biotech’s new nanocoating could prevent indoor transmission of COVID-19

A new nanocoating from Curran Biotech could dramatically improve air filtration to prevent the spread of COVID-19 indoors.

Their Capture Coating technology acts as a supplement to any household or commercial HVAC system by bonding to the filter fibers, giving them greater hydrophobic properties. This combined effect prevents virus-carrying droplets from traveling through the filter fibers, which, without the treatment, only prevent some viral transmission.

“’Capture Coating’ is designed to mitigate and significantly decrease viral transmission of COVID-19 through specified air filtration media by forming a breathable, flexible, non-leaching, water-repellent barrier against aqueous respiratory droplets that act as virion carriers that can potentially be recirculated through conventional air-filters,” wrote Curran Biotech founder and University of Houston physics professor Shay Curran in an email. Despite the molecular complexity of the coating, the product itself can simply be sprayed onto an HVAC system’s filter.

This new droplet-targeting coating is an improvement over current filtration methods, which typically only target dry molecules. Not only do those methods often have at least some potential of viral droplet transmission, but current solutions to improve them aren’t always energy efficient.

“In the world where energy management is very important, that means recycling the same air in the building with the risk of cross contamination,” wrote Curran. “Taking outside air is one way to dilute the air, but that means we also lose a huge amount in terms of energy, and still don’t solve the problem of taking the virus away from places where people congregate.”

Indoor air ventilation remains an important tool in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 across schools, small businesses, and other public buildings, but updating old HVAC systems to the recommended CDC standards can be costly. Curran hopes that his company’s approach can help address this issue, as the Capture Coating requires only a simple spray, rather than a completely new system of filters. “That really means for a few dollars when used on a standard issue MERV8, you can have huge indoor protection and stop its spread throughout the building,” he wrote.

Because of the nature of the nanocoating, Curran’s technology can help prevent viral droplet transmission long after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hydrophobic qualities of the coating prevent respiratory droplets from actions like sneezing or coughing from passing through the filter, while the HVAC system itself retains its normal capabilities for dry molecule filtration. With the Capture Coating, common droplet-transmitting viruses like the flu or cold will also be filtered out of circulation.

Similarly, the nanocoating would work in preventing transmission of any variant of the COVID-19 virus, as all of those variants also undergo droplet transmission. “It does not mean we get away from taking precautions such as hand washing, wearing masks etc, but it does mean we can work indoors far more safely,” wrote Curran.

So far, Curran Biotech’s Capture Coating technology is in use in 11 states, and will soon be announcing partnerships with distributors and filter companies to directly provide consumers with coated filters. Curran wrote that the company has also had successful trials of the technology in New York City, and hopes to expand use of the product even further across businesses and institutions around the country.


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#biotech, #covid, #covid-19, #health, #houston, #materials-science, #nanotechnology, #science, #startup, #tc, #transmission

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ElevateBio raises $525M to advance its cell and gene therapy technologies

ElevateBio, one of the leading biotech companies focused on gene-based therapies has raised a massive $525 million Series C round of financing, more than doubling the company’s $193 million Series B funding which closed last year. This new funding comes from existing investor Matrix Capital Management, and also adds new investors SoftBank and Fidelity Management & Research Company, and will be used to help the company expand its R&D and manufacturing capabilities, as well as continue to spin out new companies and partnerships based on its research.

Cambridge, Mass-based ElevateBio was founded to bridge the world of academic research and development of cell and gene therapies with that of commercialization and production-scale manufacturing. The startup identified a need for more efficient means of brining to market the ample, promising science that was being done in developing therapeutics that leverage cellular and genetic editing, particularly in treatment of severe and chronic illness. Its business model focuses on both developing and commercializing its own therapies, and also working through long-term partnerships with academic research institutions and other therapeutics biotech companies to bring their own technologies to market.

To this end, ElevateBio is in the business of frequent spin-out company creation, with the new entities each focused on a specific therapeutic. The company has announced three such companies to date, including AlloVir (in partnership with Baylor College of Medicine), HighPassBio (a venture with gene-editing company Fred Hutchinson) and Life Edit Therapeutics (in partnership with AgBiome). There are additional spin-outs in the works, too, according to ElevateBio, but they are not being disclosed publicly yet.

As you might expect, ElevateBio seems to have benefited from the increased appetite for biotech investment stemming from the global pandemic and its impacts. ElevateBio’s AlloVir spin-out is actually working on a T cell therapy candidate for addressing COVID-19, which is potentially effective in eliminating cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 in a patient to slow the spread of the disease and reduce its severity.

#atlas-venture, #biotech, #cambridge, #companies, #disease, #elevatebio, #funding, #health, #life-sciences, #roivant-sciences, #softbank, #tc

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Serimmune launches new immune response mapping service for COVID-19

Immune intelligence startup Serimmune hopes to better understand the relationship between antibody epitopes (the parts of antigen molecules that bind to antibodies) and the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The company’s proprietary technology, originally developed at UC Santa Barbara, provides a new and specific way of mapping the entire array of an individual’s antibodies through a small blood sample. They do this through the use of a bacterial peptide display—a sort of screening mechanism that can isolate plasmid DNA from antibody-bound bacteria in the sample. This DNA can then be sequenced to identify epitopes, which provide information about both which antigens someone may have been exposed to, as well as how his or her immune system responded to them.

“It’s a very highly multiplexed and exquisitely specific way of looking at the epitopes found by antibodies in a specimen,” said Serimmune CEO Noah Nasser, who has a degree in molecular biology from UC San Diego and has previously worked for several diagnostics companies.

This week, Serimmune announced the launch of a new application of their core technology to help understand the disease states of and immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, or the virus that causes COVID-19.

“So what we do is we take these antibody profiles we build, and we’re able to then map those back with about a 12 amino acid specificity to the SARS-CoV-2 proteome,” said Nasser. “And what we find is that antibody expression is highly correlated to disease state, so we can distinguish mild, moderate, severe and asymptomatic disease on the basis of antibodies that are present in the specimen.”

The more patient data Serimmune can collect, the better its core technology becomes at finding patterns across different antigen exposure and disease severity. Noticing those patterns sooner won’t only help physicians and researchers to better understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus operates, but can also inform new approaches to diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines for any antigen.

Serimmune’s launch of its new COVID antibody epitope mapping service is a way of making this data more accessible to customers like vaccine companies, government agencies, and academic labs that have shown interest in better understanding the immune response to SARS-CoV-2.

“The key was to zero in on the information that researchers wanted to know and standardize that,” said Nasser. “We can actually now provide these results back in as few as two days from sample receipt.”

Beyond this new service, Serimmune also has plans to launch a longitudinal clinical study on immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Using a painless at-home collection kit, study participants send in small blood samples to Serimmune, which then uses its core technology to outline an individual immunity map.

“We provide their results back to them in the form of a personal immune landscape to COVID,” said Nasser. “And what we’re trying to do is to understand over time how that immune response changes, and what happens to that immune response on repeated exposure to COVID.”

The mapping technology is now so specific that it can tell whether or not a patient has antibodies from natural exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus or from a vaccine, he added.

While the primary focus for Serimmune remains these applications to the COVID-19 pandemic for now, Nasser also mentioned that the company has plans to move into personalized medicine, potentially offering their mapping service directly to interested patients.

“We believe that this has value to individual patients in understanding their immune status and what antigens they’ve been exposed to,” he said. Until then, Serimmune plans to continue growing its database with more patient samples.

#biotech, #covid, #disease, #health, #immunology, #mapping-technology, #medicine, #science, #startups

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Ghana’s mPharma partners with Ethiopian conglomerate to enter its eighth market

mPharma, a Ghanaian health tech startup that manages prescription drug inventory for pharmacies and their suppliers, today announced its expansion to Ethiopia.

The company was founded by Daniel Shoukimas, Gregory Rockson and James Finucane in 2013. It specializes in vendor-managed inventory, retail pharmacy operations and market intelligence serving hospitals, pharmacies and patients.

In Africa, the pharmaceutical market worth $50 billion faces challenges such as sprawling supply chains, low order volumes, and exorbitant prices. Many Africans still suffer preventable or easily treated diseases because they cannot afford to buy their medications.

With a presence in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zambia, as well as two unnamed countries, mPharma wants to increase access to these medications at a reduced cost while assuring and preserving quality. The company claims to serve over 100,000 patients monthly and has distributed over a million drugs to Africans from 300 partner pharmacies across the continent.

CEO Rockson says that when mPharma started eight years ago, he wanted to own a pan-African brand with operations in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria from the get-go.

By 2018, mPharma went live in the West African country. In 2019, the health tech acquired Haltons, the second-largest pharmacy chain in Kenya, subsequently entering the market and gaining 85% ownership in the company. However, it seemed like a stretch to the Ghanaian-based company to expand to the East African country as it met several pushbacks. Rockson attributes this to the harsh nature of doing business with foreign companies.

“Ethiopia is one of the most closed economies on the continent. This has made it a bit hard for other startups to launch there just because the government rarely allows foreign investments in the retail sector.”

According to Rockson, most foreign brands operate in the country through franchising, a method mPharma has employed for its expansion into Africa’s second most populous nation.

The company signed a franchise agreement with Belayab Pharmaceuticals through its subsidiary, Haltons Limited. Belayab Pharmaceuticals is a part of the Belayab Group — a conglomerate that is also an official franchisee of companies like Pizza Hut and Kia Motors in Ethiopia.

Rockson says we should expect the partnership to open two pharmacies in Addis Ababa this year. Each pharmacy will offer the company’s consumer loyalty membership program called Mutti, where they’ll get discounts and financing options to access medication

Image Credits: mPharma

This franchising is a part of mPharma’s growth plans of enabling companies looking to enter the pharmacy retail sector. The plan is to provide access to a “pharmacy-in-a-box” solution where mPharma handles every infrastructure involved, and the pharmacy is just concerned about the consumer

“What we’ve done is that we enable these pharmacies with our software, and we have the backend physical infrastructure and warehousing,” he said. ‘They can rely on mPharma to do all the background work from getting the products into your pharmacy and also providing the software infrastructure to be able to run delivery services while they focus on clinical care.”

mPharma is one of the well-funded healthtech startups in Africa and has raised over $50 million. Last year when it secured a Series C round of $17 million, Helena Foulkes, former president of CVS, the largest pharmacy retail chain in the U.S., was appointed to its board. She joined Daniel Vasella, ex-CEO and Chairman of Novartis as members who have decades of experience in the pharmaceutical industry.

This sort of backing, both in expertise and investment, has proven vital to how mPharma runs operations. Rockson doesn’t mince words when saying the company wants to dominate African healthcare with Ethiopia, its toughest market to enter, already secured.

“There are issues of fragmentation in pharmacy retailing, poor standards and high prices that haven’t been fixed. The African opportunity is still huge, and we are still at the beginning stages of privatisation of healthcare on the continent,” he said.

#africa, #biotech, #ethiopia, #ghana, #health, #healthcare, #kenya, #mpharma, #nigeria, #pharmacy, #rwanda, #startups, #tc

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Could Valo Health become one of Flagship Pioneering’s biggest companies yet?

The investment firm Flagship Pioneering has incubated a lot of life sciences companies since it was founded in 2000. In fact, while a general partner with Flagship Pioneering over the last 15 years, David Berry has started more than 30 companies, five of which trade publicly right now: Seres Therapeutics, Sensen Bio, Evelo Biosciences, T2 Biosystems, and Axcella Health.

Berry is often a company’s first CEO, then transitions out of the company within 18 months. But he has no plans to leave his post as CEO of Valo Health, a three-year-old, Boston-based, 110-person drug discovery company that Berry and Flagship seem to think could become one of the firm’s most important companies yet. That’s notable, considering that Flagship incubated 11-year-old Moderna, which currently boasts a $50 billion market cap thanks in large part its coronavirus vaccine.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, given Berry’s and Flagship’s track record that Valo has attracted believers. Notably, today it is announcing a fresh $110 million in extended Series B financing from Koch Disruptive Industries that brings the round total to $300 million and the overall amount the young company has raised to more than $450 million.

Still, given that there are hundreds of drug discovery companies in the world seizing on the latest advancements in AI, machine learning and computation, it’s easy to wonder what’s so special about this one. We got Berry’s take during a chat with him yesterday, parts of which we are featuring below edited for length and clarity.

TC: Valo is trying to accelerate the creation of drugs, and it has a computational platform called Opal to do it faster and more effectively than many rivals. Is there a way to make it clearer to outsiders why this platform is so unique? 

DB: First, from day one, we were operating on a different scale [than past Flagship Pioneering companies]. Typically, when you look at Flagship companies, there’s an [exclusive] initial commitment by Flagship of plus or minus $50 million. But because of the scale of the opportunity that we saw ahead of us with Valo, we actually started out by bringing in external financing partners as part of a Series A that was right around $100 million.

[Also unique is the] breadth of what we’re trying to achieve through our systematic approach to R&D, as opposed to a targeted approach to thinking about it. There’s been an historical challenge in life sciences in that companies are primarily viewed based on what their lead therapeutic asset looks like. But if you have the potential to change the scope, the scale, the potential, the speed, the probability of success, [and] the cost of developing drugs, you’re not going to look like a typical therapeutics company.

TC: So your focus on multiple therapeutic areas at once — oncology, neurodegenerative, and cardiovascular diseases — is a distinguishing element of the company. How are you tackling so much simultaneously?

DB: The legacy biopharma model is basically this point-to-point system [where up to 15 groups] do some work, and then they basically take the result of it and they throw it over a wall to another group that has its own framework. The model is intrinsically disintegrated. They use mice. They use cell lines. They use extracted organs. And those just don’t represent what a full, intact living human actually looks like, and they don’t reflect what the disease looks like in the context of that human.

What we’re doing is what I would call that next transformation . . enabled by high-quality human-centric data [that we analyze] in an end-to-end, but componentized manner. What I mean by that is we’ve created a single underlying architecture so that we’re using the same species, we’re using the same decision-making criteria. we’re using the same KPIs throughout the entirety of the R&D cascade, [and] we’re using the same bases of the core computation. We’re using the same self-reinforcing model to learn as we go. We have a local expression, because we have to perform a certain set of tasks in order to comply with the regulatory environment. But by doing it in this way as we do those tasks, we’re learning a lot more and we’re keeping that human centricity, so when we uncover for example, a new target in cardiovascular disease or neurodegenerative disease, it’s based on our human data. It’s not based on a dog model or mouse model or something along those lines. It’s not based on cells adapted to plastic in a lab.

TC: Where is that human data coming from? Is the data you’re feeing into Opal somehow better or different than what others are using?

DB: We haven’t we haven’t yet disclosed where our datasets are coming from, but we have reason to believe that the scale and quality of the data sets are substantially high. We have not seen data sets that compare in scope and size. We have announced one subset of our data lake, but I would call it a small subset through a data partnership we announced earlier. [Editor’s note: this is with a company called Global Genomics Group, which gives Valo access to a cardio-metabolic dataset.]

TC: You’ve been at this for a few years. Have you had any major breakthroughs?

DB: I believe what we’ve done over the last two years is build an incredibly strong technology basis and foundation [for] transformation. We’ve announced four therapeutic programs that we’ve launched thus far, and each represents not only something where we’ve been able to develop a therapeutic candidate in very short periods of time, but we’ve also been able to overcome issues that were historical barriers things that made developing those sorts of candidates much more difficult, and we were able to overcome those barriers in weeks.

TC: Can you elaborate on one of those therapies to underscore your point?

DB: One of the programs we announced is called NAMPT. What was really interesting about it is it’s a very powerful cancer target. The downside of it is it’s known to cause a very particular toxicological effect — it causes retinal toxicity — and what we wanted to figure out was whether we could get the benefit of the molecule by targeting the target but avoiding getting that molecule into the retina, which required a very specific design. Long story short, in a couple of weeks, we were able to achieve a molecule that had enough differentiation between the blood in the eye that it shouldn’t have any substantial effects.

TC: Are any of these four candidates heading into the market any time soon?

DB: I would love them to be in the market soon but they’re not yet there. We are expecting that with the financing in hand, we should ultimately have molecules in clinical trials, and ultimately we’re very excited to be able to transition some of the drugs that we’re developing into [viable offerings in the market].

TC: Would you sell then sell these to a big pharma company, or would Valo be marketing these itself?

DB: Both are viable potential paths. Because we’re developing a number of different therapeutics, it gives us flexibility in the way we think about our ultimate business model.

#biotech, #drug-discovery, #flagship-pioneering, #machine-learning, #medicine, #moderna, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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New clinical trial data from Locus Biosciences shows promise in CRISPR-Cas3 technology

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest potential threats to global health today. But Locus Biosciences is hoping that their crPhage technology might provide a new solution.

Based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the startup recently announced promising phase 1b clinical trial results for their use of CRISPR-Cas3-enhanced bacteriophages as a treatment for urinary tract infections caused by escherichia coli. Led in part by former Patheon executive and current Locus CEO Paul Garofolo, the startup launched in 2015 with the goal of using a less popular application of CRISPR technology to address growing antimicrobial resistance.

CRISPR-Cas3 technology has notably different mechanisms from its more well-known CRISPR-Cas9 counterpart. Where the Cas9 enzyme has the ability to cleanly cut through a piece of DNA like a pair of scissors, Garofolo describes Cas3 more like a Pac-Man, shredding the DNA as it moves along a strand.

“You wouldn’t be able to use it for most of the editing platforms people were after,” he said, noting that meant there wouldn’t be as much competition around Cas3. “So I knew it would be protected for some time, and that we could keep it quiet.”

Garofolo and his team wanted to use CRISPR-Cas3 not to edit harmful bacteria found in the body, but to destroy it. To do this, they took the DNA-shredding mechanism of Cas3 and used it to enhance bacteriophages—viruses that can attack and kill different species of bacteria. Together, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Dave Ousterout—who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke—thinks this technology offers an extremely direct and targeted way of killing bacteria.

“We armed the phages with this Cas3 system that attacks E. coli, and that sort of dual mechanism of action is what comes together, essentially, as a really potent way to remove just E. coli,” he said in an interview.

That specificity is something that antibiotics lack. Rather than targeting only harmful bacteria in the body, antibiotics typically wipe out all bacteria they come across. “Every time we take antibiotics, we’re not thinking about all the other parts of us that are impacted by the bacteria that do good things,” said Garofolo. But the precision of Locus Biosciences’ crPhage technology means that only the targeted bacteria would be wiped out, leaving those necessary to the body’s normal function intact.

Beyond offering this more specific approach to treatment of pathogens, or any bacteria-based disease, Garofolo and his team also suspect that their approach will also be extremely safe. Though deadly to bacteria, bacteriophages are typically harmless to humans. The safety of CRISPR in humans is well-established, too.

“That’s our secret sauce,” said Garofolo. “We can build drugs that are more powerful than the antibiotics they’re trying to replace, and they use phage, which is probably one of the world’s safest ways to deliver something into the human body.”

While this new technology could certainly help treat pathogens and infectious diseases, Garofolo hopes that indications in immunology, oncology, and neurology might benefit from it too. “We’re starting to figure out that some bacteria might promote cancer, or inflammation in your gut,” he said. If researchers can identify the bacteria at the root cause of those conditions, Garofolo and Ousterout think the crPhage technology might prove to be an effective treatment.

“If we’re right about that, it’s not just about infections or antimicrobial resistance, but helping people overcome cancer or delay the onset of dementia,” Garofolo said. “It’s changing the way we think about how bacteria really help us live.”


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#biology, #biotech, #biotechnology, #cancer, #cas-3, #crispr, #enzymes, #genetic-engineering, #health, #life-sciences, #locus-biosciences, #north-carolina, #science, #startups

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Swiss maker of meat alternatives Planted will expand and diversify with $18M Series A

Planted, a startup pursuing a unique method of creating a vegetarian chicken alternative, has raised an $18M (CHF 17M) Series A to expand its product offerings and international footprint. With new kebabs and pulled-style faux meats available and steak-like cuts in the (literal) pipeline, Planted has begun to set its sights outside central Europe.

The company was a spinout from ETH Zurich and made its debut in 2019, but has not rested on the success of its plain chicken recipe. Its approach, which relied on using pea protein and pea fiber extruded to recreate the fibrous structure of chicken for nearly 1:1 replacement in recipes, has proven to be adaptable for different styles and ingredients as well.

“We aim to use different proteins, so that there is diversity, both in terms of agriculture and dietary aspects,” said co-founder Christoph Jenny.

A woman bites into a artificial pulled pork sandwich.

Image Credits: Planted

“For example our newly launched planted.pulled consists of sunflower, oat and yellow pea proteins, changing both structure and taste to resemble pulled pork rather than chicken. The great thing about the sunflower proteins, they are upcycled from sunflower oil production. Hence, we are establishing a circular economy approach.”

When I first wrote about Planted, its products were only being distributed through a handful of restaurants and grocery stores. Now the company has a presence in more than 3,000 retail locations across Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, and works with restaurant and food service partners as well. No doubt this strong organic (so to speak) growth, and the growth of the meat alternative market in general, made raising money less of a chore.

The cash will be directed, as you might expect for a company at this stage, towards R&D and further expansion.

“The funding will be used to expand our tech stack, to commercialize our prime cuts that are currently produced at lab scale,” said Jenny. “On the manufacturing side we look to significantly increase our current capacity of half a ton per hour to serve the increasing demand coming from international markets, first in neighboring countries and then further into Europe and overseas.”

A large laboratory environment with clear walls. A person works at machinery in the foreground.

Image Credits: Planted

“We will further invest in our structuring and fermentation platforms. Combining structuring technologies with the biochemical toolboxes of natural microorganisms will allow us to create ultimately new products with transformative character – all clean, natural, healthy and tasty,” said co-founder Lukas Böni in a press release.

No doubt this all will also help lower the price, a goal from the beginning but only possible by scaling up.

As other companies in this space also raise money (incidentally, rather large amounts of it) and expand to other markets, competition will be fierce — but Planted seems to be specializing in a few food types that aren’t as commonly found, at least in the U.S., where sausages, ground “beef,” and “chicken” nuggets have been the leading forms of meat alternatives.

No word on when Planted products will make it to American tables, but Jenny’s “overseas” suggests it is at least a possibility fairly soon.

The funding round was co-led by Vorwerk Ventures and Blue Horizon Ventures, with participation from Swiss football (soccer) player Yann Sommer and several previous investors.

#alternative-protein, #biotech, #europe, #food, #funding, #fundings-exits, #greentech, #meat-alternative, #planted, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

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How Rani Therapeutics’ robotic pill could change subcutaneous injection treament

A new auto-injecting pill might soon become a replacement for subcutaneous injection treatments.

The idea for this so-called robotic pill came out of a research project around eight years ago from InCube Labs—a life sciences lab operated by Rani Therapeutics Chairman and CEO Mir Imran, who has degrees in electrical and biomedical engineering from Rutgers University. A prominent figure in life sciences innovation, Imran has founded over 20 medical device companies and helped develop the world’s first implantable cardiac defibrillator.

In working on the technology behind San Jose-based Rani Therapeutics, Imran and his team wanted to find a way to relieve some of the painful side effects of subcutaneous (or under-the-skin) injections, while also improving the treatment’s efficacy. “The technology itself started with a very simple thesis,” said Imran in an interview. “We thought, why can’t we create a pill that contains a biologic drug that you swallow, and once it gets to the intestine, it transforms itself and delivers a pain-free injection?”

Rani Therapeutics’ approach is based on inherent properties of the gastrointestinal tract. An injecting mechanism in their pill is surrounded by a pH-sensitive coating that dissolves as the capsule moves from a patient’s stomach to the small intestine. This helps ensure that the pill starts injecting the medicine in the right place at the right time. Once there, the reactants mix and produce carbon dioxide, which in turn inflates a small balloon that helps create a pressure difference to help inject the drug-loaded needles into the intestinal wall. “So it’s a really well-timed cascade of events that results in the delivery of this needle,” said Imran.

Despite its somewhat mechanical procedure, the pill itself contains no metal or springs, reducing the chance of an inflammatory response in the body. The needles and other components are instead made of injectable-grade polymers, that Imran said has been used in other medical devices as well. Delivering the injections to the upper part of the small intestine also carries little risk of infection, as the prevalence of stomach acid and bile from the liver prevent bacteria from readily growing there.

One of Imran’s priorities for the pill was to eliminate the painful side effects of subcutaneous injections. “It wouldn’t make sense to replace them with another painful injection,” he said. “But biology was on our side, because your intestines don’t have the kind of pain sensors your skin does.” What’s more, administering the injection into the highly vascularized wall of the small intestine actually allows the treatment to work more efficiently than when applied through subcutaneous injection, which typically deposits the treatment into fatty tissue.

Imran and his team have plans to use the pill for a variety of indications, including the growth hormone disorder acromegaly, diabetes, and osteoporosis. In January 2020, their acromegaly treatment, Octreotide, demonstrated both safety and sustained bioavailability in primary clinical trials. They hope to pursue future clinical trials for other indications, but chose to prioritize acromegaly initially because of its well-established treatment drug but “very painful injection,” Imran said.

At the end of last year, Rani Therapeutics raised $69 million in new funding to help further develop and test their platform. “This will finance us for the next several years,” said Imran. “Our approach to the business is to make the technology very robust and manufacturable.”

#biotech, #diabetes, #health, #infection, #medical-devices, #pain, #recent-funding, #robotics, #rutgers-university, #san-jose, #science, #startups, #therapeutics

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