- Courtesy Freenome
When Gabe Otte went to college, he already had an Apple internship under his belt. In undergrad, his computer-science professors told him to diversify and pick out another area to focus on so he wasn’t bored in class, so he chose biology.
Now, at 27, he just got $5.5 million in a seed-funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s bio fund to build out a blood test that screens for the earliest signs of cancer. Founders Fund, Data Collective Venture Capital, and Third Kind Venture Capital are also in on the round.
“What we’re aiming to do is develop a test that healthy patients would take as part of their annual physical that tells you whether or not somebody’s going to have cancer,” Otte told Business Insider.
Freenome, a startup Otte started two years ago along with Dr. Charles Roberts and Riley Ennis that’s based out of Philadelphia, wants to use supercomputing to crunch the human genome (the entire genetic material that gives our body instructions on how to live and grow) to look for any signs of cancer that are hanging out in the body.
These tests are often referred to as “liquid biopsies,” since unlike solid-tumor biopsies, these “liquid” versions just pick up clues from the blood. They rely on something called “circulating tumor DNA,” or the bits of DNA that are released from dying tumor cells into the bloodstream. Knowing what abnormalities a specific tumor possesses could help link cancer patients to treatments that specifically target those mutations as a more effective way approach cancer treatment, which is how the tests are being used right now. Better yet, the hope is that you might be able to accurately find these bits of DNA before a person’s even diagnosed with cancer.
It’s something everyone from Guardant Health, which has been running liquid biopsies on people with cancer to monitor how the disease progresses, and Illumina spin-off Grail, are working on. In May, Guardant launched LUNAR, a collaboration with research institutes that will study Guardant’s own diagnostic cancer blood test.
Where Freenome wants to be different
Right now, liquid biopsies screen for specific genetic mutations you can find in a small percentage of the blood that have been vetted and will give you information that you can act on in the course of a patient’s treatment. At the moment, that’s a bit more limited than solid-tumor biopsies, which is why it’s still considered the gold standard by doctors.
But Otte said he wants to go after the whole genome.
“When I talk to a biologist, they’ll be like what’s wrong with that? You know what you’re looking for you’re going and looking for it,” he said. That’s much different than the reaction he gets when he talks to people in tech, who think the idea of throwing out data is ridiculous. “If you can get more data, if you can get the entire genome, why would you throw that out?”
Crunching all that technology takes a lot of computing power and money, but with the decreasing cost of genome sequencing falling quickly, Otte seemed convinced that he can do it at a cheap cost, working methodically. Even the latest funding round wasn’t necessary to keep the lights on, he said, thanks to a grant the company received in 2015.
“It needs to be done in this step-wise way, with these validations along the way,” he said. “Otherwise, chances are you’re going to throw a bunch of money down the drain.”
The story lines may sound similar – revolutionary blood-testing technology, young founders, promises to disrupt the healthcare industry – but Andreessen Horowitz, to validate the test, sent Freenome five blinded blood tests for the company to sequence on their technology to show that it works. Having blinded studies meant that Freenome’s team didn’t know what was in the blood ahead of time, so they couldn’t fudge the results that make its tech look more advanced and accurate than it actually is. It’s a key difference from what’s being reported on Theranos and its relationship with Walgreens.
Otte said he’s committed to publishing all work and working with regulatory agencies to make sure everything is up to standards. So far, Freenome has tested out its technology in hundreds of samples, and the next step is to validate it on a larger, thousands-of-samples level.
Andreessen Horowitz’s first bio-fund investment was in November, in twoXAR, which is looking at how to use digital in the drug-discovery process. Vijay Pande told Business Insider that the bio fund has multiple other investments already in addition to Freenome, but most are working quietly at the moment. Pande seemed confident that this next wave of health-tech entrepreneurs would fare better than others have in the past, in part because founders are getting a better understanding of both computer science and lab sciences.
“There’s this new crop of founders that can go deep in biology, and can also go extremely deep in computer science,” he said. “They’re well versed in both areas, which is much different than founders five to 10 years ago.”