on January 14, 2020
According to Deloitte, some of the key drivers for life sciences in 2020 will be data-driven approaches that employ machine learning and AI, the use of sensors and wearables for telemedicine and predictive medicine, and precision medicine supported by new cell and gene therapies. For years, we’ve been reading about these superb innovations and what they mean for our well being, yet the majority of the global population still dies of the same causes as they did 16 years ago. With the advent of technologies like 5G and affordable broadband for all, it’s only a matter of time before everyone has access to quality healthcare.
We recently attended Slush Helsinki, one of the largest tech startup conferences in the world, with more than 3,500 startups and 2,000 investors in attendance. Participating startups applied to showcase their products on stage, and Slush’s jury selected a handful of promising startups from various industries to present to investors. The “Life Sciences” track featured five startups from around the world showcasing hardware and software innovations that have already achieved some traction in the market. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Founded in 2017, Cambridge, U.K. startup Sano Genetics has raised $660,000 to develop a genetic database that connects participating individuals with medical research institutions. Anyone can sign up for free. Just fill out a health questionnaire, and you’re now part of Sano’s patient database. Participants gain access to cutting edge medical reports on conditions relevant to them, and can also receive personalized genetic reports after they have their DNA sequenced and uploaded to the platform. Members can decide if they want to participate in research studies and clinical trials based on their profile. In return, they’ll receive in-depth analysis of their conditions and, in some cases, financial reimbursement.
Sano Genetics’ patient network includes sizeable populations with target conditions for research – Credit: Sano Genetics
With more than 4 million members, Sano now has an anonymized database of medical conditions that can be sold to medical research institutions. The data can also be used by pharma companies, healthcare providers, and universities to find the right subjects for clinical trials and drug discovery. Platform members can get their DNA sequenced for free if they qualify for a research project that requires genetic information, or they can opt to pay for the sequencing themselves. Sano’s DNA sequencing kits are priced between $165 and $1,245 depending on the depth of the analysis desired. Current topics that Sano’s research clients are working on include autism, muscular dystrophy, psoriasis, addiction, sleeping habits, and memory improvement. The startup is in fundraising mode and looking to raise another round this month. Involving the patient in the research process is a great idea as opposed to saying “check this box if you don’t want your genetic data used for research projects” like other genetic testing companies do.
Founded in 2017, Berlin, Germany startup biotx.ai has raised an undisclosed amount of funding to develop machine learning algorithms for analyzing complex interactions in biomedical data. Traditionally, big data analysis has involved a manageable amount of information gathered from millions of subjects. In the case of data gathered through clinical trials and genetic testing, an incredibly large number of data points – like the entire genome – become available on a small sample set of subjects. It’s something biotx.ai calls “wide data.”
biotx.ai has developed a method that enables researchers to treat ‘wide data’ as big data – Credit: biotx.ai
Wide data sets are incredibly hard to analyze, so most companies avoid this approach entirely, opting instead to sequence entire populations. However, in order to find even slightly complex genetic interactions in such data, one would need to sequence a large chunk of the entire human population. biotx.ai has designed its AI algorithms to make wide data manageable by separating meaningful findings from the noise. In this way, big data techniques can be applied to wide genomic data to accurately predict disease status and drug response, select the right patients for clinical trials, and develop drug candidates. Seems like biotx.ai is trying to achieve the same thing as Sano Genetics, just addressing the problem in an entirely different way. Current topics being researched by biotx.ai include Alzheimer’s disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and eczema.
Founded in 2016, South Korean startup VPIX Medical has raised an undisclosed amount of funding to develop a pen-sized microscope to be used during cancer surgeries. During such operations, the surgeon removes the tumor visible to the naked eye, then checks the remaining tissue for invisible cancer cells. (It’s a common problem we discussed in our article on The Future of Medical Imaging Technology for Surgery.) As microscopes are located in the pathology lab of the hospital, tissue samples need to be transferred to the lab, frozen, cut, and stained, then checked for remaining malignant cells. The process takes 30-60 minutes, and can be performed up to ten times during an operation while the patient lies open in the operating room (OR). VPIX Medical takes the microscope into the OR and lets the surgeon do real-time tissue checks.
Credit: VPIX Medical
The pen-sized microscope is attached to a computer terminal that runs the startup’s proprietary image processing algorithms and provides live imaging of the patient’s tissues by observing cells in their natural environment. The outcome? Faster surgeries, faster patient recoveries, and more availability of medical teams which increase the operating capacity of a hospital. VPIX Medical has developed an initial prototype that it’s currently upgrading based on feedback from medical practitioners. The company expects to have its product ready for research use by the end of 2020 with “go to market” planned for 2021.
Founded in 2018, Finnish startup Capsamedix has raised an undisclosed amount of funding to develop technology for long-term oral drug delivery with the aim of solving two major problems. Firstly, many of today’s oral drugs lack long-term release devices which means patients need to remember to take their medicine – and in about one-third of cases, patients just forget. Secondly, many drugs suffer from a so-called ‘burst release’ which is a cycle of overdosing when the drug is initially taken and then underdosing when the medication wears off, a process that is less than optimal for patient recovery. Capsamedix has developed a small device made of two biodegradable polymers that is imperceptible when attached to the side of a tooth. Once in place, the device releases the drug in precise amounts for up to 40 days.
Drug ingredients are integrated into these polymers in such a manner that the drug release rate and time to release can be configurable according to any specification. An added benefit of the technology is that drugs are absorbed by oral mucous instead of the gastrointestinal tract, meaning less active ingredient is required, which in turn decreases the unwanted side effects of potent drugs. Currently, Capsamedix has four working prototypes and is developing additional polymers to refine drug delivery precision and allow for multi-drug delivery. Initial use cases include blood pressure medications, schizophrenia drugs, and drugs for chronic pain (opioids). No release date has been made available yet.
The last startup to present probably wouldn’t be considered “life sciences” where we’re sitting, that is unless you consider plant-based protein startups like Beyond Meat to be life sciences companies as well. (Beyond Meat is actually classified as “Consumer Staples” according to the widely accepted Global Industry Classification Standard or GICS.) We briefly covered Finnish startup Solar Foods in an earlier piece on how “Single Cell Protein is the Ultimate Alternative Protein.” Founded in 2017, the company has taken in $2.8 million in funding so far to develop a new form of single-cell protein for human consumption to replace animal and plant-based traditional protein sources. The startup uses microbes that metabolize CO2, and only require water and (renewable) electricity as the primary inputs for the fermentation process. The end product, dubbed Solein, is powdered protein that looks and tastes just like wheat flour.
The Solar Foods process has a very small ecological footprint using 100 times less water than plant production and up to 500 times less water than the production of beef. Land use is 60 times more efficient than plants and 1,000 times more efficient than beef production. When replacing animal or plant-based proteins, the production of Solein is also carbon-negative.
Credit: Solar Foods
In terms of nutritional value, Solein is comparable to known protein sources like soybeans or beef. It can be used as a base ingredient like flour, or can act as a raw material for other solutions like lab-grown meat. Solar Foods is trying to appeal to the gourmands as well by developing different structures, tastes, and food applications for the raw ingredient. The company expects to open its first factory, with a capacity of 50 million meals per year, by the end of 2021. In preparation for that, they’re raising a Series A funding round that is expected to take place early this year. We’re more interested in the price point this stuff will sell at which hints at how resilient they’ll be when a recession hits and everyone goes back to eating off the 99 cent menu at McDonald’s.
Innovation in life sciences doesn’t just happen in startups that raise $100 million rounds. It also isn’t isolated to New Yawk, Bahstun, or Silicon Valley. Over the past several years, we’ve looked at many startups solving big problems in healthcare, from modeling cancer cells using artificial intelligence to building tools that allow the deaf to communicate with anyone using sign language. In many cases, these startups are flying under the radar and consequently offer some real value for venture capital firms because their founders know how to run lean. When the Softbank-sized funding rounds dry up, startups that already operate efficiently will have a much greater chance of survival.
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