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Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative gives $68M to fund Human Cell Atlas projects

21:33 | 21 June

An ongoing global project to map the human body cell by cell has receive a $68 million shot in the arm from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. It will support dozens of individual projects contributing to the eponymous atlas of human cells.

The Human Cell Atlas is a collection of projects that aim to document healthy human cells at about as detailed a level as is practical. And CZI has been supporting it for a few years in various ways as part of its ongoing philanthropic work in basic research.

In fact CZI announced that it would be backing these 38 three-year projects some time back, along with 85 one-year projects along the same lines. But the grants process moves slowly, since everything has to be approved, estimated, and arranged beforehand — it’s rare a scientist or lab just gets a blank check for whatever they feel like doing.

The $68 million figure, however, is new, and better delineates the scope of CZI’s involvement with the HCA. The actual projects being backed can be explored here, down to the researchers and institutions responsible for them.

The results of the work and tools created to enable it will be made available freely to other researchers — another priority of CZI is open source software and datasets.

“We’re excited to further support and build interdisciplinary collaborations that will accelerate progress towards a first draft of the Human Cell Atlas,” said CZI’s head of science Cori Bargmann in a press release. It’s a big job, all right. We’ll check back in a few years to see how they’re getting on.



Neurobehavioral health company Blackthorn pulls in $76 million from GV to treat mental disorders

19:08 | 13 June

There are numerous challenges to finding effective treatments for mental disorders. However, Blackthorn Therapeutics, a neurobehavioral health company using machine learning to create personalized medicine for mental health, is betting its technological approach to finding drugs that work will put it ahead of the competition. Lucky for them, GV and other biotech investors have shown they agree by adding another $76 million in Series B financing to the coffers.

Today, Blackthorn announced the close of its $76 million series B round from GV, Scripps Research, Johnson & Johnson Innovation and a bevy of other biotech investment firms, including Polaris Partners, Premier Partners, Vertex Ventures HC, Alexandria Venture Investments, Altitude Life Science Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, and Biomatics Capita.

Blackthorn has been heads down the last couple of years on a clinical trial for a drug that could potentially treat mood disorders. In April, the company announced positive results from its phase I trial for the drug.

The company plans to use the funding to advance its clinical-stage programs for mood disorders as well as for potential treatment of autism spectrum disorder, advancing towards clinical investigation in 2020.

Brian Chee, a managing partner at Polaris Partners, Lori Hu, a managing director at Vertex Ventures HC, and Julie Sunderland, a managing director at Biomatics Capital have joined Blackthorn’s board as directors in conjunction with the funding.

Blackthorn also recently added two people to its executive team. Jane Tiller has joined as chief medical officer and Laura Hansen as vice president, corporate affairs.

“BlackThorn was founded to bring new therapies to patients by applying advances in computational sciences to address patient heterogeneity, one of the biggest historical challenges in the field of neuropsychiatric drug development,” said Blackthorn’s president and COO Bill Martin, Ph.D. “Three years later, insights from our data-driven approaches are yielding patient enrichment strategies that could increase probability of clinical trial success and improve patient outcomes. We are grateful for our investors’ support to continue advancing our platform and therapeutic pipeline as we build out a world-class team at the intersection of technology and clinical neuroscience.”



What top VCs look for in women’s fertility startups

20:05 | 10 June

A number of promising women’s health tech companies have popped up in the last few years, from fertility apps to ovulation bracelets — even Apple has jumped into the subject with the addition of period tracking built into the latest edition of the watch. But there hasn’t been much in the way of innovation in women’s sexual health for decades.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is now a 40-year-old invention and even the top pharmaceutical companies have spent a pittance on research and development. Subjects like polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis and menopause have taken a backseat to other, more fatal concerns. Fertility is itself oftentimes a mysterious black box as well, though a full 10% of the female population in the United States has difficulty getting or staying pregnant.

That’s all starting to change as startups are now bringing in millions in venture capital to gather and treat women’s health. While it’s early days (no unicorns just yet) interest in the subject has been jumping steadily higher each year.

To shine a better light on the importance of tech’s role in spurring more innovation for women’s fertility, we asked five VCs passionate about the space for their investment strategies, including Sarah Cone (Social Impact Capital), Vanessa Larco (NEA), Anu Duggal (Female Founders Fund), Jess Lee (Sequoia) and Nancy Brown (Oak HC/FT).

Sarah Cone, Social Impact Capital

Sarah Cone, Social Impact Capital

We’re interested in companies that create large data sets in women’s health and fertility, enabling personalized medicine, clinical trial virtualization, better patient outcomes, and the application of modern AI/ML techniques to generate hypotheses that discover new targets and molecules.



Sequoia-backed Whole Biome wants to heal your gut with medical-grade probiotics

22:52 | 4 June

Whole Biome has pulled in $35 million in Series B financing from a list of investing titans, including Sequoia, Khosla, True Ventures, the Mayo Foundation and AME Ventues — just to name a few. The goal? to heal what ails you using microscopic bugs.

Medical science has caught on in the last few years about the importance of gut health using these bugs (also known as probiotics). Now startups are pitching in using venture money to come up with new and novel ideas.

“We’re at a unique point in time as the field of microbiome biology converges with enabling cutting-edge technologies and bioinformatics that will open up a whole new world of innovative health products,” said Colleen Cutcliffe, Whole Biome’s co-founder and chief executive officer.

Cutliffe, who hails from DNA sequencing company Pacific Biosciences, along with her partners Jim Bullard and John Eid, built a platform able to compute information from varying populations and compare microbiome sequencing to get a clear picture of what’s missing in a patient’s flora for overall health.

The next step is to use the raised funds to launch a product for the management of Type 2 Diabetes.

Many of the prescription diabetes medications out on the market today can come with a load of side effects like upset stomach, dizziness, rashes or inability to consume alcohol. However, Whole Biome says their product will not have any side effects.

Slated for release in early 2020, the startup has conducted double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trials for a product, which releases special probiotics into your gut with the goal of reducing glucose spikes.

“Whole Biome is creating novel, disease-targeting microbiome interventions that have the potential to improve the course of many of the significant health issues facing people today,” said Sequoia partner Roelof Botha. “They have built an integrated approach and a multi-disciplinary team across research, development and commercialization to unlock complex microbiome biology and create products with both clinical efficacy and unparalleled safety.”

To date, Whole Biome has now raised $57 million in funding.



Aaptiv, the workout app, launches a new AI-based personal trainer called Coach

14:59 | 21 May

After raising at least $20 million last year from the likes of Amazon, Disney and Bose for a mobile app that offered workouts led by professional, human trainers, Aaptiv is now taking a tech turn. Today, the startup is beginning a pilot of a new service it calls Aaptiv Coach, an AI-based assistant that builds personalised fitness and lifestyle plans based on a user’s goals, current fitness levels, eating habits and data input from external devices like smartwatches and fitness trackers.

Coach will mark a notable departure for the startup. Aaptiv built its name on human-led workouts produced by Aaptiv itself. (“We might the only people willing to acknowledge that we will not use AI to replace trainers,” founder and CEO Ethan Agarwal told TechCrunch last June. “The trainers create the classes and that will be always the same. That relationship and drive and the passion cannot be matched by anyone or anything.”)

Now, while the company is not removing trainers from the platform, it will be reorienting the focus of how it delivers fitness plans to users: Coach will give users an order of what should be done, with the option of using Aaptiv workouts, or alternatively following sessions led by others, or even doing the exercise on their own, using AI to measure progress.

That change, it should be noted, came with some personnel shifts at the company, too: earlier this year, the company laid off employees, including personal trainers, and while it would not confirm the exact amount, several tipsters suggested to us that it was around one-third of staff.

In an interview ahead of today, Agarwal made it clear that the reductions were not about eliminating human coaches altogether but about adding something new to the platform as it continues to scale.

Coach is being released after three years of internal development that was taking place at the same time that the company was building out the data and using it to feed and improve its algorithms. The company has to date streamed 22 million workouts across 20 countries, and all of that translates into data points that both have taught Coach, but also the startup itself about what it is that people want.

“The first phase was spent learning about how people consume classes, where and when they work out,” Agarwal said.

One thing that it learned was that while there are definitely a small and dedicated part of the population that will carve out significant time each day for workouts, there is a larger proportion that will not, and so Coach is about trying to fit fitness into those consumers’ lives.

And maybe more importantly, the rest of how an individual leads his or her life will probably give a better picture of what she or he will need to do to achieve a desired outcome (such as lose weight, or achieve a better running time, or get stronger, or whatever it happens to be).

“The idea is how can we help people achieve their goals, whatever they are?” he said. “If you work out three times a week for 45 minutes, that is basically two percent of your week. But there are a lot of companies out there competing for that two percent: gyms, in-home biking startups, and more. But the way we see it, is that the other 98 percent of your time is where your habits are formed, where you need to start to build structure.”

Aaptiv’s approach with Coach will be to create personalised daily, weekly and monthly plans for getting to a specified goal. “No one will have the same plan,” Agarwal said. For those who are already using Aaptiv, their own data will be used to start to build Coach’s profile of the person. Users will be given the option to add other sources of input, and also add in more information, to further tailor the experience.

Like many a platform, what’s interesting about Coach is how its open-ended structure could be leveraged to help Coach grow.

Today, there is already guidance on food a person should avoid or try to eat regularly, but you could imagine how one might link up the APIs from a particular appliance to inform Aaptiv’s Coach more directly on what a person is eating.

Or, you could imagine also a time when someone might even order the food she should be eating directly from the app, to be delivered by a food delivery partner.

The commerce aspects are an interesting one to consider, given how much people spend on fitness and health already today.

Take running shoes as an example: if you input into Coach what shoes you already own, and it’s tracking where you are running and how much you weigh and so on, it will be able to reasonably determine when it’s time for you to get a new pair of shoes, even if your old ones don’t look like they’re about to fall apart.

All of that will not only extend the amount of time people are spending in the Aaptiv app, but potentially present revenue streams on top of the basin subscription-based one that exists today. (It’s also perhaps a clue as to why Amazon is interested in the company.)

When I covered Aaptiv’s round last year, I wondered about how the model would scale as it expanded, built as it was on personal human connections. Coach provides one possible answer.

The potential of where and how Coach might develop is one way that Aaptiv is filling out its valuation (which last year was $200 million), and also attracting attention. From what I’ve heard, the company has been approached by multiple interested parties hoping to tap into the audience it has built and the engagement that it’s bringing to the world of health and fitness.



A nanoparticle injection is all it takes to let these mice see in infrared

02:33 | 1 March

I know it’s everyone’s dream to see outside the wavelengths allotted to our visual systems. Well, as usual, mice have gotten there first, with the help of some clever scientists. By injecting specialized light-tweaking nanoparticles into a mouse’s retina, that mouse is suddenly and clearly able to perceive near-infrared light — suggesting the same could be possible for us, assuming you don’t mind a needle in the eye.

The advance involves what the researchers, from the University of Science and Technology in China, call “ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding upconversion nanoparticles.” It’s actually not as complicated as it sounds. Well… actually, it is pretty complicated.

The human eye can only see wavelengths of light between about 430 and 770 nanometers; above that is ultraviolet and below it is infrared. We don’t see infrared but in great enough quantities we can sense the heat it imparts. All objects give off IR, increasingly so the warmer they are, which is the basis for heat vision goggles.

But while some infrared is well outside our ability to sense, a band known as near-infrared (NIR) is just below the reds we can detect. What if you could shift that NIR upwards with some kind of optical trickery? We do it all the time, of course — convert one kind of light or energy into another.

In fact, it turns out that these researchers had already created the necessary trickery for a different reason, namely as a molecule for optogenetic triggers that would absorb infrared light (which conveniently penetrates many tissues) and emit visible spectrum light instead.

The nanoparticles bind to rods and cones, coating them and changing the wavelengths they are sensitive to.

These “nanoantennae,” as the researchers call them, are biocompatible and can be combined with proteins that encourage them to bind with the photoreceptive cells in our retinas. What happens when you coat a cell that normally detects green light with a molecule that absorbs NIR radiation (900-1000 nm) and outputs something 500 nm shorter? That cell can effectively now sees IR as a shade and intensity of green.

Transmission electron microscopy image of the nanoparticles.

That’s exactly what happened when the team injected these molecules into the eyes of mice (such subretinal injections are already done in humans with some eye problems); the animals were instantly able to detect NIR in a variety of circumstances. Not only did a beam of IR cause their pupils to constrict, but patterns projected in IR indicating a reward were reliably sought by the mice, indicating this was not just a general awareness but detailed perception in the wavelength.

Note that this is different from the colorful “heat vision” we see in movies — night vision goggles use electronic sensors to amplify and categorize incoming radiation outside the visual range, producing those interesting noisy rainbow images. This would be more like seeing something warm as slightly more bright (and greener) than a cooler item of the same color. You’d also be able to see the TV clicker blinking its little patterns.

The molecules also seemed to cause no serious problems in the retina, such as cell death or irritation — and the mice were still able to see in IR some 10 weeks after injection.

The team explains the importance of their findings:

It is important to note that these injected nanoantennae did not interfere with natural visible light vision. The ability to simultaneously detect visible and NIR light patterns suggests enhanced mammalian visual performance by extending the native visual spectrum without genetic modification and avoiding the need for bulky external devices. This approach offers several advantages over the currently used optoelectronic devices, such as no need for any external energy supply, and is compatible with other human activities.

In other words, this could be a simple, safe, and reversible way to extend human vision well beyond our present capabilities — no batteries required. Not exactly something you’d want done on a whim, but you better believe the military would be interested. Of course a great deal of further work and testing needs to be done, but this does seem like a particularly promising application of nanotech.

The research was published today in the journal Cell.



Samsung is ditching plastic packaging

22:57 | 27 January

Samsung Electronics said Sunday it will replace plastic packaging used for its bevy of products from mobile phones and tablets to home appliances and wearables with paper and other environmentally sustainable materials like recycled/bio-based plastics.

Samsung will start making the switch in the first half of the year. The company aims to only use paper packaging materials certified by forestry initiatives by next year. By 2030, Samsung says it plans to use 500,000 tons of recycled plastics and collect 7.5 million tons of discarded products (both cumulative from 2009).

The company said it’s formed an internal task force to come up with innovative packaging ideas that avoid plastic.

For instance, the plastic trays used to hold mobile phones and tablets will be replaced with ones made from pulp. Samsung said it will also alter the phone charger design, swapping the glossy exterior with a matte finish and eliminating plastic protection films, reducing the use of plastics.

Plastic bags used to protect the surface of home appliances such as TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners and washing machines as well as other kitchen appliances will also be replaced with bags containing recycled materials and bioplastics. Bioplastics are made from plastic wastes and non-fossil fuel materials like starch or sugar cane.

The company also committed to only using fiber materials certified by global environmental organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council, Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Scheme and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative for packaging and manuals by 2020.

The company will adopt more environmentally sustainable materials even if it means an increase in cost,” Gyeong-bin Jeon, head of Samsung’s Global Customer Satisfaction Center, said in a statement.



Curious 23andMe twin results show why you should take DNA analysis with a grain of salt

01:08 | 19 January

If you’ve ever enthusiastically sent your spit off in the mail, you were probably anxious for whatever unexpected insights the current crop of DNA testing companies would send back. Did your ancestors hang out on the Iberian peninsula? What version of your particular family lore does the science support?

Most people who participate in mail-order DNA testing don’t think to question the science behind the results — it’s science after all. But because DNA testing companies lack aggressive oversight and play their algorithms close to the chest, the gems of genealogical insight users hope to glean can be more impressionistic than most of these companies let on.

To that point, Charlsie Agro, host of CBC’s Marketplace, and her twin sister sent for DNA test kits from five companies: 23andMe, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and Living DNA.

As CBC reports, “Despite having virtually identical DNA, the twins did not receive matching results from any of the companies.” That bit shouldn’t come as a surprise. Each company uses its own special sauce to analyze DNA so it’s natural that there would be differences. For example one company, FamilyTreeDNA, attributed 14% of the twins’ DNA to the Middle East, unlike the other four sets of results.

Beyond that, most results were pretty predictable — but things got a bit weird with the 23andMe data.

As CBC reports:

“According to 23andMe’s findings, Charlsie has nearly 10 per cent less “broadly European” ancestry than Carly. She also has French and German ancestry (2.6 per cent) that her sister doesn’t share.

The identical twins also apparently have different degrees of Eastern European heritage — 28 per cent for Charlsie compared to 24.7 per cent for Carly. And while Carly’s Eastern European ancestry was linked to Poland, the country was listed as “not detected” in Charlsie’s results.”

The twins shared their DNA with a computational biology group at Yale which verified that the DNA they sent off was statistically pretty much identical. When questioned for the story, 23andMe noted that its analyses are “statistical estimates” — a phrase that customers should bear in mind.

It’s worth remembering that the study isn’t proper science. With no control group and an n (sample size) of one set of twins, nothing definitive can be gleaned here. But it certainly raises some interesting questions.

Twin studies have played a vital role in scientific research for ages. Often, twin studies allow researchers to explore the effects of biology against those of the environment across any number of traits — addiction, mental illness, heart disease, and so on. In the case of companies like 23andMe, twin studies could shed a bit of light on the secret algorithms that drive user insights and revenue.

Beyond analyzing the cold hard facts of your DNA, companies like 23andMe attract users with promises of “reports” on everything from genetic health risks to obscure geographic corners of a family tree. Most users don’t care about the raw data — they’re after the fluffier, qualitative stuff. The qualitative reporting is where companies can riff a bit, providing a DNA-based “personal wellness coach” or advice about whether you’re meant to be a morning person or a night owl.

Given the way these DNA services work, their ancestry results are surprisingly malleable over time. As 23andMe notes, “because these results reflect the ancestries of individuals currently in our reference database, expect to see your results change over time as that database grows.” As many non-white DNA testing customers have found, many results aren’t nearly as dialed in for anyone with most of their roots beyond Europe. Over time, as more people of color participate, the pool of relevant DNA grows.

Again, the CBC’s casual experiment is by no means definitive science — but neither are DNA testing services. For anyone waiting with bated breath for their test results, remember that there’s still a lot we don’t know about how these companies come to their conclusions. Given the considerable privacy trade-off in handing your genetic material over to big pharma through a for-profit intermediary, it’s just some food for thought.



Watch biotech startups pitch at IndieBio’s demo day today

00:13 | 7 November

IndieBio, the biotech startup accelerator that’s produced heaps of notable companies (including several that have graced the Startup Battlefield), is holding its twice-annual demo day today at 3PM Pacific Time. An even dozen young companies will be pitching their work, from AI-informed research to artificial meat, and you can watch them present live right here.

The IndieBio program is a four-month one that takes companies at the seed stage, often researchers straight out of graduate programs or university research groups, and gets them into shape for a proper Silicon Valley debut. Right now the companies get $250K in funding to take part, as well as plenty of resources, which parent VC firm SOSV can surely afford these days, what with raising $150 million last year.

Off the top of my head I remember two companies that competed at Disrupt SF 2016, Amaryllis Nucleics and mFluiDx, both very technical and highly talented teams. I’m always rooting for these kinds of wet lab companies, and it sounds like the current batch has plenty.

Watch the live pitches starting at 3PM below, and consult the list below the video for a summary of the companies presenting. We’ll be watching too!

New Age Meats: Pig farms are hell on earth. New Age Meats is a “cell-based meat company” that’s looking to replace animal-based pork sausage with a cleaner, more ethical grown alternative that goes just as well with pancakes.

NovoNutrients: Another non-traditional protein source, NovoNutrients uses industrial CO2 emissions to produce high-protein bacteria, which are harvested and sold as sustainable feed stock for aquaculture animals like fish.

BioRosa: An early detection method for autism spectrum disorders using blood tests that could shift diagnosis time to well before the current four years of age to potentially before the child is born.

Chronus Health: Hospitals need to do blood tests constantly, but often have to send samples to a central lab, which can take hours or days. Chronus has made a portable device they claim can provide complete blood count and metabolic panel tests essentially in real time.

Clinicai: Colorectal cancer, like other cancers, is best treated when detected early — and collecting and analyzing stool samples is a big part of that. These guys made a (prototype) device that attaches to ordinary toilets and non-invasively does what it needs to do, which could help people worldwide get proactive diagnosis and care.

Convalesce: Parkinson’s is a stubborn and tragic disease, but Convalesce is working on a treatment method involving injecting stem cells directly into areas affected by neurodegeneration.

Oralta: You can floss, brush, and rinse, but bad news bacteria are still going to take up residence in your mouth. Oralta hopes to combat them with good bacteria, reinforced by probiotic supplements. Fight fire with fire!

Ember: If someone is having a heart attack and it’ll take the EMTs 5 minutes to arrive, but your neighbor is a nurse trained in CPR, wouldn’t it be nice if they could stop by and help? That’s the idea with Ember, which hopes to improve outcomes by connecting patients with health professionals nearby.

Filtricine: The cancer treatment method being pursued by this company, instead of adding something lethal to cancer cells into the bloodstream, subtracts what they need to live while leaving normal cells unharmed. It could combine effectiveness with a blessed lack of side effects to become another tool in oncologists’ arsenals.

Serenity Bioworks: Gene therapy is another important therapeutic tool for a variety of problems, but some viral delivery methods can be fought by the body as if it’s fighting infection. Serenity is working on a system that suppresses that immune response and allows the friendly virus to deliver its payload.

Quartolio: So much scientific literature is published every year that there’s no way doctors and researchers can keep up. Quartolio aims to apply national language processing to journal articles to find connections and research opportunities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Stämm: Bioreactors are used in practically every branch of biotech, whether for testing or drug manufacturing. Stämm is advancing the art with a modular, scalable microfluidic platform with highly tunable physical and chemical parameters.



China is funding the future of American biotech

20:15 | 20 October

Silicon Valley is in the midst of a health craze, and it is being driven by “Eastern” medicine.

It’s been a record year for US medical investing, but investors in Beijing and Shanghai are now increasingly leading the largest deals for US life science and biotech companies. In fact, Chinese venture firms have invested more this year into life science and biotech in the US than they have back home, providing financing for over 300 US-based companies, per Pitchbook. That’s the story at Viela Bio, a Maryland-based company exploring treatments for inflammation and autoimmune diseases, which raised a $250 million Series A led by three Chinese firms.

Chinese capital’s newfound appetite also flows into the mainland. Business is booming for Chinese medical startups, who are also seeing the strongest year of venture investment ever, with over one hundred companies receiving $4 billion in investment.

As Chinese investors continue to shift their strategies towards life science and biotech, China is emphatically positioning itself to be a leader in medical investing with a growing influence on the world’s future major health institutions.

Chinese VCs seek healthy returns

We like to talk about things we can interact with or be entertained by. And so as nine-figure checks flow in and out of China with stunning regularity, we fixate on the internet giants, the gaming leaders or the latest media platform backed by Tencent or Alibaba.

However, if we follow the money, it’s clear that the top venture firms in China have actually been turning their focus towards the country’s deficient health system.

A clear leader in China’s strategy shift has been Sequoia Capital China, one of the country’s most heralded venture firms tied to multiple billion-dollar IPOs just this year.

Historically, Sequoia didn’t have much interest in the medical sector.  Health was one of the firm’s smallest investment categories, and it participated in only three health-related deals from 2015-16, making up just 4% of its total investing activity. 

Recently, however, life sciences have piqued Sequoia’s fascination, confirms a spokesperson with the firm.  Sequoia dove into six health-related deals in 2017 and has already participated in 14 in 2018 so far.  The firm now sits among the most active health investors in China and the medical sector has become its second biggest investment area, with life science and biotech companies accounting for nearly 30% of its investing activity in recent years.

Health-related investment data for 2015-18 compiled from Pitchbook, Crunchbase, and SEC Edgar

There’s no shortage of areas in need of transformation within Chinese medical care, and a wide range of strategies are being employed by China’s VCs. While some investors hope to address influenza, others are focused on innovative treatments for hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

For instance, according to the Chinese Journal of Cancer, in 2015, 36% of world’s lung cancer diagnoses came from China, yet the country’s cancer survival rate was 17% below the global average. Sequoia has set its sights on tackling China’s high rate of cancer and its low survival rate, with roughly 70% of its deals in the past two years focusing on cancer detection and treatment.

That is driven in part by investments like the firm’s $90 million Series A investment into Shanghai-based JW Therapeutics, a company developing innovative immunotherapy cancer treatments. The company is a quintessential example of how Chinese VCs are building the country’s next set of health startups using their international footprints and learnings from across the globe.

Founded as a joint-venture offshoot between US-based Juno Therapeutics and China’s WuXi AppTec, JW benefits from Juno’s experience as a top developer of cancer immunotherapy drugs, as well as WuXi’s expertise as one of the world’s leading contract research organizations, focusing on all aspects of the drug R&D and development cycle.

Specifically, JW is focused on the next-generation of cell-based immunotherapy cancer treatments using chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) technologies. (Yeah…I know…) For the WebMD warriors and the rest of us with a medical background that stopped at tenth-grade chemistry, CAR-T essentially looks to attack cancer cells by utilizing the body’s own immune system.

Past waves of biotech startups often focused on other immunologic treatments that used genetically-modified antibodies created in animals.  The antibodies would effectively act as “police,” identifying and attaching to “bad guy” targets in order to turn off or quiet down malignant cells.  CAR-T looks instead to modify the body’s native immune cells to attack and kill the bad guys directly.

Chinese VCs are investing in a wide range of innovative life science and biotech startups. (Photo by Eugeneonline via Getty Images)

The international and interdisciplinary pedigree of China’s new medical leaders not only applies to the organizations themselves but also to those running the show.

At the helm of JW sits James Li.  In a past life, the co-founder and CEO held stints as an executive heading up operations in China for the world’s biggest biopharmaceutical companies including Amgen and Merck.  Li was also once a partner at the Silicon Valley brand-name investor, Kleiner Perkins.

JW embodies the benefits that can come from importing insights and expertise, a practice that will come to define the companies leading the medical future as the country’s smartest capital increasingly finds its way overseas.

GV and Founders Fund look to keep the Valley competitive

Despite heavy investment by China’s leading VCs, Silicon Valley is doubling down in the US health sector.  (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JASON LEE)

Innovation in medicine transcends borders. Sickness and death are unfortunately universal, and groundbreaking discoveries in one country can save lives in the rest.

The boom in China’s life science industry has left valuations lofty and cross-border investment and import regulations in China have improved.

As such, Chinese venture firms are now increasingly searching for innovation abroad, looking to capitalize on expanding opportunities in the more mature US medical industry that can offer innovative technologies and advanced processes that can be brought back to the East.

In April, Qiming Venture Partners, another Chinese venture titan, closed a $120 million fund focused on early-stage US healthcare. Qiming has been ramping up its participation in the medical space, investing in 24 companies over the 2017-18 period.

New firms diving into the space hasn’t frightened the Bay Area’s notable investors, who have doubled down in the US medical space alongside their Chinese counterparts.

Partner directories for America’s most influential firms are increasingly populated with former doctors and medically-versed VCs who can find the best medical startups and have a growing influence on the flow of venture dollars in the US.

At the top of the list is Krishna Yeshwant, the GV (formerly Google Ventures) general partner leading the firm’s aggressive push into the medical industry.

Krishna Yeshwant (GV) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

A doctor by trade, Yeshwant’s interest runs the gamut of the medical spectrum, leading investments focusing on anything from real-time patient care insights to antibody and therapeutic technologies for cancer and neurodegenerative disorders.

Per data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, Krishna has been GV’s most active partner over the past two years, participating in deals that total over a billion dollars in aggregate funding.

Backed by the efforts of Yeshwant and select others, the medical industry has become one of the most prominent investment areas for Google’s venture capital arm, driving roughly 30% of its investments in 2017 compared to just under 15% in 2015.

GV’s affinity for medical-investing has found renewed life, but life science is also part of the firm’s DNA.  Like many brand-name Valley investors, GV founder Bill Maris has long held a passion for the health startups.  After leaving GV in 2016, Maris launched his own fund, Section 32, focused specifically on biotech, healthcare and life sciences. 

In the same vein, life science and health investing has been part of the lifeblood for some major US funds including Founders Fund, which has consistently dedicated over 25% of its deployed capital to the space since at least 2015.

The tides may be changing, however, as the recent expansion of oversight for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) may severely impact the flow of Chinese capital into areas of the US health sector. 

Under its extended purview, CFIUS will review – and possibly block – any investment or transaction involving a foreign entity related to the production, design or testing of technology that falls under a list of 27 critical industries, including biotech research and development.

The true implications of the expanded rules will depend on how aggressively and how often CFIUS exercises its power.  But a lengthy review process and the threat of regulatory blocks may significantly increase the burden on Chinese investors, effectively shutting off the Chinese money spigot.

Regardless of CFIUS, while China’s active presence in the US health markets hasn’t deterred Valley mainstays, with a severely broken health system and an improved investment environment backed by government support, China’s commitment to medical innovation is only getting stronger.

VCs target a disastrous health system

Deficiencies in China’s health sector has historically led to troublesome outcomes.  Now the government is jump-starting investment through supportive policy. (Photo by Alexander Tessmer / EyeEm via Getty Images)

They say successful startups identify real problems that need solving. Marred with inefficiencies, poor results, and compounding consumer frustration, China’s health industry has many

Outside of a wealthy few, citizens are forced to make often lengthy treks to overcrowded and understaffed hospitals in urban centers.  Reception areas exist only in concept, as any open space is quickly filled by hordes of the concerned, sick, and fearful settling in for wait times that can last multiple days. 

If and when patients are finally seen, they are frequently met by overworked or inexperienced medical staff, rushing to get people in and out in hopes of servicing the endless line behind them. 

Historically, when patients were diagnosed, treatment options were limited and ineffective, as import laws and affordability issues made many globally approved drugs unavailable.

As one would assume, poor detection and treatment have led to problematic outcomes. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes and chronic lung disease accounts for 80% of deaths in China, according to a recent report from the World Bank

Recurring issues of misconduct, deception and dishonesty have amplified the population’s mounting frustration.

After past cases of widespread sickness caused by improperly handled vaccinations, China’s vaccine crisis reached a breaking point earlier this year.  It was revealed that 250,000 children had been given defective and fallacious rabies vaccinations, a fact that inspectors had discovered months prior and swept under the rug.

Fracturing public trust around medical treatment has serious, potentially destabilizing effects. And with deficiencies permeating nearly all aspects of China’s health and medical infrastructure, there is a gaping set of opportunities for disruptive change.

In response to these issues, China’s government placed more emphasis on the search for medical innovation by rolling out policies that improve the chances of success for health startups, while reducing costs and risk for investors.

Billions of public investment flooded into the life science sector, and easier approval processes for patents, research grants, and generic drugs, suddenly made the prospect of building a life science or biotech company in China less daunting. 

For Chinese venture capitalists, on top of financial incentives and a higher-growth local medical sector, loosening of drug import laws opened up opportunities to improve China’s medical system through innovation abroad.

Liquidity has also improved due to swelling global interest in healthcare. Plus, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange recently announced changes to allow the listing of pre-revenue biotech companies.

The changes implemented across China’s major institutions have effectively provided Chinese health investors with a much broader opportunity set, faster growth companies, faster liquidity, and increased certainty, all at lower cost.

However, while the structural and regulatory changes in China’s healthcare system has led to more medical startups with more growth, it hasn’t necessarily driven quality.

US and Western investors haven’t taken the same cross-border approach as their peers in Beijing. From talking with those in the industry, the laxity of the Chinese system, and others, have made many US investors weary of investing in life science companies overseas.

And with the Valley similarly stepping up its focus on startups that sprout from the strong American university system, bubbling valuations have started to raise concern.

But with China dedicating more and more billions across the globe, the country is determined to patch the massive holes in its medical system and establish itself as the next leader in international health innovation.


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