First Look Showcases Life Science Startups from SoCal Academies
The featured startups span industries from therapeutics to software to green tech. One wants to change the way you experience audio. Another uses CRISPR technology to find a cure for a rare genetic disease. A third wants to repurpose waste to generate a food preservative.
These three startups, along with 24 others, will have the opportunity to present to a panel of investors as part of today's First Look SoCal Innovation Showcase.
The event, which will be held virtually, begins Wednesday and lasts two days, bringing together some of the top research institutes in SoCal, including Caltech, USC and UCs Santa Barbara, Riverside and San Diego, among others. Each team will have three minutes to present their startup followed by a six minute question and answer session with investors. There are no prizes and no competition involved.
The first day is dedicated to life science-related startups, while the second is reserved for technology startups.
Both days begin with a welcome speech and a keynote speaker. The first day will feature Andy Slavitt, the former senior advisor to the White House COVID-19 response task force during the first four months of the Biden administration; the second will feature George Whitesides, a former CEO and current chair of Virgin Galactic.
The event will also host workshops for startups and will conclude with a panel of experts. The event is free and attendees can attend by registering for tickets on the Alliance for SoCal Innovation website.
Here's a quick run through of three of the startups scheduled to present:
EDGE teammembers from left: Vincent Zhang, Winson Bi, Constantine Pappas, Ethan Castro, Valtteri Salomaki, Julian Bell, Santiago (not part of the team) and Brandon Babu.
Technology to Let You Feel Music — Literally
Valtteri Salomaki wants to update how people experience sound.
"The last big significant pull was surround sound," he said. "Since then, audio hasn't changed, it's just fragmentally gotten better."
Salomaki, the co-founder of L.A.-based startup EDGE Sound Research, is developing what he and his cohorts call "experiential audio," an experience that lets users feel audio physically.
The company has one product, which is still in testing: ResonX, a circular device that straps onto the back of a gaming or office chair. The device resonates, allowing the user to feel vibrations in the chair. Users can use this technology for video games, music or movies.
EDGE is aiming to raise around $1.6 million to finish the product and launch new ones.
Experiential audio is difficult to explain; "until you've experienced it, it's very hard to rationalize," Salomaki said.
"The first reaction that we kind of are coining is they have a 'holy shit' moment where they've never experienced feeling sound before," he said.
He described the experience as like being in the front row of an EDM concert and feeling the boom of subwoofers. He said ResonX can create that sensation without bothering your neighbors or destroying your ears: the device has a "quiet" option.
The company plans to tailor its products to the gaming market, which Salomaki said is driven by immersion and experience — and is less price sensitive. The company is also allowing gamers to sign up to test ResonX in-person for free.
From left: Melissa Spencer, a Neurology professor at UCLA and cofounder of the company; Courtney Young, CEO; and April Pyle, a UCLA Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics professor and co-founder.
Treating Rare Diseases With Genetic Editing
As an undergraduate at John Hopkins University, Courtney Young volunteered at labs and spent summers interning for companies that did work related to Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that affects around 1 out of every 3,500 of males and causes the atrophying of upper arm and leg muscles. Patients often require wheelchairs by their early teens and develop life-threatening conditions by early adulthood.
For Young, her Duchenne research is personal: when she was in high school, her cousin was diagnosed with the disease.
Duchenne is most often diagnosed in patients between the ages of 3 to 6, according to the National Organization of Rare Diseases. There is no existing long-term cure for the disease. And, according to Young, the few approved treatments either have modest effects, require weekly doses or have severe side effects.
As a PhD candidate at UCLA, she began developing a gene editing therapy for Duchenne, eventually discovering that CRISPR, gene editing technology, could be used to treat some patients.
"Gene editing is kind of like a permanent version of that for more patients," Young said.
She and two UCLA professors went on to found MyoGene Bio, a Los Angeles-based startup hoping to use that technique to find an effective, long term treatment for Duchenne.
MyoGene Bio is using the technology to serve as a long-term treatment. The technique, called MyoDys45-55, uses CRISPR technology to remove genetic mutations that cause the disease.
The company has proved that its treatment is effective in human stem cells that have been injected into mice, and is looking to move on to larger animal and long-term mice testing, Young, now the company's CEO, said.
The treatment is still in pre-clinical development, and clinical trials themselves could take between four to eight years, Young said.
MyoGene Bio also isn't the only company trying to treat Duchenne using gene editing technology. A number of academic labs and a handful of companies are working on similar techniques, Young said. However, MyoGene Bio's technique can target a larger number of Duchene patients — around 50% — while other treatments have so far been able to target only around 13% of patients, she added.
Young said her personal connection has pushed her to seek a more holistic solution to Duchenne, rather than just treating side effects.
"Seeing him at holidays and how his disease is progressing always kind of reminds me of why we're trying to develop therapies for muscle diseases that have no other cure," she said.
Turning Biodiesel Waste Into Food Preservatives
In the words of its head of research and development Joshua Hirner, Catapower turns "people's trash into other people's treasure."
The company started in 2017 after USC chemistry professor Travis Williams and Zhiyao Lu, then a chemistry PhD candidate at the school, discovered a technique to turn Glycerol, a waste product made during biodiesel fuel production, into Lactate salts.
Lactate salts are used by the meatpacking industry and other food industries as a food preservative.
Catapower's process uses a proprietary chemical catalyst that is more efficient at turning Glycerol into Lactate salts than other techniques, Hirner said.
Increasing the supply of Lactate salts could also help replace food preservatives that can be toxic, Hirner said, including bleach and ammonia.
"We see a lot of value for it for everyone involved here, from a planetary perspective, from a climate perspective, from a health perspective," he added.
Catapower is still in its proof-of-concept stage and is planning to figure out ways to ramp up production of Lactate salts, Hirner said. Ultimately, the company hopes to buy Glycerol waste from biodiesel producers that produce large quantities of glycerol and sell the lactate salts to larger Lactate salt distributors.
"We're really excited about the fact that we can take these byproducts, and through our efficient process, turn them into something that the market finds valuable," said Hirner.
Catapower has since received funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hirner said.
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Between a distinguished career as a U.S. Navy officer and various roles at IT and cybersecurity firms, Glen Day became the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services’ first chief privacy officer in 2002—a role tasked with overseeing HIPAA compliance for over a million medical patients.
At the time, governments and businesses alike were only beginning to understand the importance of privacy in a budding technological world, where data still straddled both analog and digital realms. Two decades later, the evolution of data storage and the cloud have turned companies into data hoarders. As a result, security breaches have become more sophisticated, and privacy compliance—from the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation rules to California’s “right to be forgotten” law—has only increased.
“When you see companies dealing with these new ransomware attacks, it is a clear indicator that they've lost control of their data,” Day told dot.LA.
In 2018, Day founded NVISIONx, a Santa Monica-based cybersecurity startup that unveiled a $4.6 million seed funding round on Thursday. Boston-based Companyon Ventures led the round and was joined by investors Morgan Stanley Next Level Fund, SixThirty Ventures, Gutbrain Ventures, PBJ Capital and CreativeCo Capital.
NVISIONx founder Glen Day.
NVISIONx “data risk intelligence” platform manages data storage and protection for enterprise clients, with the goal of helping them avoid cybersecurity breaches that could lead to regulatory fines or the loss of intellectual property. The startup has already garnered a handful of major corporate clients—most notably Meta Platforms, the company formerly known as Facebook, as well as San Diego-based fleet management software provider Platform Science.
NVISIONx’s platform examines every piece of data in a company’s repository, and takes stock of what is outdated and what is valuable and needs to be protected. The program then assesses who owns the valuable data, looks at what protocols are in place to protect it, and makes sure those protections are in line with federal, state and international compliance regulations.
Day said he was inspired by his work at accounting giant Ernst and Young. There, he oversaw cybersecurity and intellectual property protections for companies like Nike, Qualcomm and Monster Energy, which would often have large databases filled with consumer information and unpatented intellectual property. Some companies would struggle to sift through large volumes of data to protect individuals’ privacy, which could then open them up to large fines if a security breach was discovered. Others had pieces of intellectual property or research and development data scattered across unprotected data containers, leaving them vulnerable to data leaks.
By getting rid of outdated or unnecessary data, Day said, companies can save millions of dollars on the security engineers and data storage costs often required to babysit large volumes of information. “When you purge the junk, not only does it reduce your compliance scope and reduce your attack surface—it also will save you millions on a recurring basis,” he said
The seed funding will go toward marketing costs, expanding NVISIONx’s technical offerings and integrations, and growing its sales team to garner more clients, Day added.
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Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.
While you can’t drink an NFT, that isn’t stopping some beverage startups from looking to capitalize on the blockchain-enabled craze.
Non-fungible tokens have gained traction in the art world, where artists and creators are using the digital assets to create closer connections with fans and collectors.
The idea of building a creative community around a product is not unfamiliar to beverage brands. After all, generations of beverage aficionados gave us the concept of the bar, the tea house and the coffee joint.
As brands increasingly take to the digital world to increase their exposure, many beverage companies are now experimenting with NFT technology to build interest around their products. Budweiser, for instance, recently signed a deal to mint collectible tokens, as have Bacardi, Fountain Hard Seltzer and the Robert Mondavi Winery.
Three new L.A.-based beverage brands–Bored Breakfast Club, Yerb and Leisure Project–are also using the blockchain to build their companies and engage with customers in different ways. Each is using NFTs to kickstart their direct-to-consumer businesses and build interest in their brands.
The goal is to use the transparency and equity inherent in blockchain technology to attract early adopters—giving them an opportunity to test ideas and products before they’re finalized—and encourage them to invest in a community built around their drinks.
Time will tell if each brand can deliver on that promise.
Bored Breakfast Club's NFT tokens feature the Bored Ape characters and serve as a subscription membership.
Bored Breakfast Club
One L.A.-based effort, Bored Breakfast Club, has looked to leverage the popularity of Bored Ape collectible NFTs to help jump start a new coffee subscription service.
Frogtown-based marketing agency Kley is leading the effort to use Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) and Mutant Ape Yacht Club (MAYC) intellectual property to build direct-to-consumer coffee subscription memberships that are sold as NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain. The tokens themselves feature a breakfast scene that include BAYC and MAYC characters, and each functions as a coffee subscription membership.
BAYC and MAYC are considered two of the most popular and expensive NFT collections, according to OpenSea, a secondary NFT marketplace that also tracks their value. BYAC NFTs are valued at approximately 74.69 ETH ($244,041) on the platform.
Kley co-founder Brad Klemmer said the idea was to parlay the success of the Bored Apes brand into a new direct-to-consumer offering. Owners of the NFTs get two free coffee shipments and the possibility of more, if the project is a success.
Klemmer said the idea is to build a regular clientele for his coffee brand by shipping it directly to consumers, rather than relying on them to go to a coffee shop or grocery store. “You need a brand and community that puts their product on [consumers’] doorstep on a weekly basis,” he said.
Bored Breakfast Club launched the project on Jan. 10, offering 5,000 NFTs for .08 ETH (approx. $250) each, and promising token holders they would receive a 12-ounce bag of a different variety of coffee for each of two NFT sales thresholds the company surpassed. The NFTs have since sold out, meaning that the project will ship two bags of coffee to each token holder by the end of the month. The company has also created a “community coffee wallet” that could entitle token holders to still more coffee.
A graphic explains Bored Breakfast Club's "wallet" concept.
That’s because the “wallet“ collects funds from a 5% royalty on its NFTs that are bought and sold on the secondary market. Once it collects enough funds, the company will send additional blends to its 5,000 token holders. (Klemmer said they’re waiting to get data from their initial shipments to determine how much it will cost to ship additional bags). That communal “wallet“ will also pay to produce extra bags of coffee and Bored Breakfast Club merchandise to sell to non-NFT holders.
Klemmer said he sees the NFT offerings as a “fun way to buy coffee.” Also, there were “similarities around NFT communities engaging with each other and what the DTC subscription model is trying to be.”
Bored Breakfast Club works with Yes Plz Coffee, which sources, roasts, packages and delivers the coffee to NFT holders.
Yerb was born out of entrepreneur Brett Fink's habit of drinking yerba mate with friends, many of them creatives who were looking for a coffee alternative. The traditional South American drink is said to provide a calmer caffeine-imbibing experience than coffee.
Like Bored Breakfast Club, Fink is hoping to use NFTs to drum up interest in his business early on. But instead of relying on the popularity of a particular NFT brand, Fink sees an opportunity to use the blockchain to heighten awareness of his own brand and, hopefully, develop buy-in for its first product.
Fink, who has past experience building and growing consumer-packaged good (CPG) brands, including cannabis brands, thinks NFTs can help build a creative community around a product.
“If you believe what we believe, and want to create a product for the creative process, you can benefit from it, as there is a massive untapped opportunity in NFT and CPG projects,” Fink said. “You need to get people to believe what you believe, then have them be involved and take ownership of that product.”
Yerb’s first yerba mate drink will be bottled in 12-ounce cans but sold through NFTs that cost 0.039 ETH (approx. $77 USD). The company started offering the tokens in February of last year; each entitles the holder to six cans of Yerb’s first release, as well as an additional six-pack of cans every year that they hold the NFT. Yerb is hoping that the offer will help it identify early adopters who will buy-in to the brand as repeat customers.
Non-NFT holders will be able to purchase the drinks once token holders receive the first shipment. Yerb is targeting April 2022 for that release after hitting supply chain issues last year.
Venice-based Leisure Project is taking a similar approach to Yerb by targeting creatives with an emphasis on community development.
The startup, which bills itself as “the world’s first co-created beverage brand,” hopes to market a kind of natural Gatorade for entrepreneurs, creators and innovators.
Leisure Project was started by former NCAA Division I athletes and brothers Steve Michaelsen, who works at Nike LA, and Alex Michaelsen, who works at TikTok marketing agency GO Ventures in Beverly Hills. The brothers, who have been bootstrapping the project themselves, have spent almost two years creating the brand’s first three flavors.
In December, the Michaelsens announced plans to experiment with minting NFTs that would provide token holders with the first run of their beverages, cheaper pricing on additional flavors and the opportunity to pitch new products. Leisure Project has been sampling its drinks at local NFT events to drum up publicity.
Down the line, the company hopes to use the blockchain to give token holders access to a yet-to-be-defined “creator database” of potential partners and grants.
Leisure Project is in its early stages, but its founders hope establishing buy-in through NFTs and social platforms like Discord will help build an authentic community for their brand, and give them a potentially vital advantage over more-established competitors. “Big brands can’t go backwards and do something community-orientated after the fact,” Steve Michaelson said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said Bored Breakfast Club would ship four bags of coffee to early NFT holders as sales thresholds were met. The company has since changed that number to two.
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