L.A. Venture Capital Firm MarsBio Scrambles to Secure Cash, Resources for Coronavirus Vaccines, Test Kits

The terrifying stories of Italian doctors running low on respirators as COVID-19 patients overwhelmed hospitals inspired Joe Wilson, a partner at bioscience venture capital fund MarsBio, to create a way to quickly fund new coronavirus' vaccines, testing kits and other lifesaving ideas.

Over the last week, the fund launched by Soylent Nutrition co-founder and biohacker Rob Rhinehart, has fielded more than a dozen calls and made connections with startups and scientists that have ideas about how to quickly combat the spread of the deadly virus.

One of those known as Curative Inc., led by Fred Turner, has already set up shop in San Dimas and is now ramping up production of testing kits thanks to the connection.

"The stories felt like they couldn't possibly be real as they were so horrific, and yet they kept coming," Wilson said. "There are crises all the time, but I felt like this is one that we can do something and contribute to."

This week, MarsBio posted a call for proposals to those working on research or an idea that would combat the fast-spreading virus, particularly through vaccine development, public safety and prevention, treatment and operational response. The effort is not a venture fund, rather the group is looking for backers for individual projects that can address the pandemic.

"We think we can have a pretty big impact and we are seeing it already," he said.

The idea behind the group is to vet those ideas that can make the highest impact and then help them get funding — whether it be through grants, government, individuals or other sources like connecting them with operational help.

"Even a million dollars from these sources could have an outsize impact on COVID-19 outcomes," Wilson said.

Earlier this week, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $125 million effort with Wellcome and Mastercard to form the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, to find potential treatments. The firm hopes to tap into that new wave of new funding, as the world scrambles to stem the crisis and businesses search for solutions.

To vet the ideas, MarsBio will be bring on other academics, scientists, epidemiologists, clinicians and people outside the firm's core expertise.

"We take a very science-first lead," said general partner Llewellyn Cox, founder of LabLaunch which helps connect early state companies with lab space.

All the partners are trained scientists and entrepreneurs, noted Cox, who holds a doctorate in molecular and cell biology. And the firm, which backs early-stage bioscience companies in Southern California, boasts deep connections in Southern California's lab community.

Through those contacts, Cox put Curative in touch with KorvaLabs, where the Bay area company is now accelerating production of saliva test kits for the novel coronavirus. And the firm is helping Curative raise $800,000 and bulk up its workforce as the company ramps up their output.

"The best case scenario is we put a lot of time and energy into this, we highlight some really good ideas. It turns out to be less of an impact than you expect," Wilson said. "We don't think that's gonna happen. We think it is going to be bad. Hopefully, we can provide some scientific and some some operational support to make life a little bit easier."

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