Santa Monica's Quantgene Uses Big Data to Solve the Cancer Riddle

Rachel Uranga

Rachel Uranga is dot.LA's Managing Editor, News. She is a former Mexico-based market correspondent at Reuters and has worked for several Southern California news outlets, including the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Daily News. She has covered everything from IPOs to immigration. Uranga is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and California State University Northridge. A Los Angeles native, she lives with her husband, son and their felines.

quantgene

Jo Bhakdi thinks he can extend life with data.

Over the past years, the trained economist and co-founder of Quantgene has helped create a blood test that screens for early signs of some of the deadliest cancers, using millions of culled data points.

"We have a bigger vision behind this," Bhakdi said. "It's what I call decades in a decade — to extend the average human lifespan by ten years in the next ten years."


Quantgene has been developing so-called "liquid test" that can pinpoint the origin of multiple types of cancer by identifying their cellular mutations using artificial intelligence analytics and big data.

The project began five years ago at a U.C. Berkeley lab. Bhakdi partnered with co-founder Monika Hagen to create a system that would screen cancer using algorithms.

Late this year, Bhakdi and Hagen expect to roll out an early cancer screening subscription plan to consumers for an annual cost of around $2,200, pending regulatory approval. And they specifically came to Los Angeles, an image-conscious city that's embraced the idea of wellness, to launch it.

Blood tests are not a new technology for cancer screening, but Quantgene and others are trying to create a more precise tool to identify cancer in its earliest stages by finding mutation patterns that point to the disease. And in the process lower cancer death rates in the U.S.. This year, an estimated 600,000 people will die of the disease. Another 1.6 million will get the grim diagnosis. It's the second biggest killer of Americans year in and year out.

Most blood tests are currently used when doctors already know where the cancer exists, mostly in order to track its progression.

Quantgene founders Jo Bhakdi and Monika Hagen

The new tests examine fragments of DNA that break loose in the bloodstream. Quantgene looks at the different mutations of these cells to identify patterns that signal early forms of cancer or other diseases. The company plans to sell the system as part of a line of tiered-price testing called "Serenity" that includes genetic counseling and profiles.

Quantgene is branding the complex sequencing and AI process that analyzes these mutations the "Griffin Deep Genomics Platform." The company has raised more than $13 million, and expects to raise a Series B round this fall. Bhakdi believes it could upend how people test for cancer. But it has competition.

Amazon-backed, Menlo Park-based Grail Inc. has raised nearly $2 billion. In March, the Silicon Valley company released a report that said it could detect 50 types of cancer across all stages, with a false-positive rate below 1%. The company said it can find its location with 93% accuracy. But finding early-stage cancer — the type that actually save lives — has proven elusive.

Of the 12 deadly cancer types that make up 63% of deaths in the U.S., Grail reported a detection rate of 67% for stages one to three. The company's test is expected to be available within 12 months. A spokeswoman said in an email, it's "too early to comment on cost, however, our principal goal is to ensure broad access to our test, and we hope to make this ground breaking technology available to as many people as possible." Investors include Bill Gates, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck.

"The problem with a lot of these liquid biopsy technologies right now — Grail and others — is that they are not really good at detecting cancers at the earliest stages. Because there just isn't that much tumor material in the blood," said Timothy Rebbeck, director of the Zhu Family Center for Global Cancer Prevention at Harvard. "So, it's not to say that it couldn't be done. It's just the right now the technology is not refined enough to do it that really well."

Getting to Cancer Screening at Earlier Stages

For the last few decades, physicians have screened individual organs for signs of cancer, trying to suss out whether a patient has a cancerous growth on the pancreas or breast or lung. These early screenings, coupled with advances in cancer treatments, have been credited with a decline in U.S. deaths related to cancer.

"The median point of diagnosis in these 1.6 million is between stage three and stage four.

If you can shift that point of stage two and one, you would be saving 400,000 people a year," Bhakdi said. "That's crazy if you think about that."

Bhakdi, who comes from a family of scientists and doctors, began the search less than a month before his own mother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.

At the time, a family member asked his help in solving a genomic question about whether one could determine if a random, isolated cell was cancer. The answer is very difficult to get. It lays in sequencing the cell's DNA and then comparing it to thousands of others. That ability to compare cells with a massive data trove is now at the heart of their company.

A flow cell used for deep-sequencing produces 6 billion data points per patient sample.Courtesy Quantgene

Bhakdi believes it would have saved his mother.

"If you are diagnosed with colon cancer at stage one, you have a 94% survival rate," he said. "In stage four, you have an 11% survival rate."

Sidestepping Insurers in Santa Monica

One of the best ways to bring down deaths is to diagnose cancer early, said Rebbeck. But even when these technologies are developed for widespread use they could exacerbate disparities for the poor, underserved and uninsured. That's because there remains systemic hurdles of access and cost.

Bhakdi said he understands those concerns. He had hoped originally to work with insurers to get the product out, but they required long-term economic studies to prove they would lower costs. Unable to produce that quickly, Quantgene moved to Santa Monica last year.

"We asked the question, 'What region has the most innovation-driven and future-oriented consumers and physicians and health care experts that are most likely to adopt new technologies?'," he said. "And what we found was very clear, very clear: Los Angeles."

In short, people in Los Angeles pay well to be healthy and beautiful. He pointed to companies that thrive in the metropolis like Next Health, a self-described longevity center that offers cryotherapy, or Remedy Place, a social wellness club.

"There's a big population here, a lot of whom are focused on health and wellness and are willing to spend the money," said David Whelan, chief executive of BioScienceLA, "The Goop effect sort of worked here. This is the place to be able to get a lot of customers very quickly when you're charging a high price point for customized service."

Beyond that, Bhakdi said there's also an extreme level of excellence in clinical infrastructure from medical institutions at UCLA, USC, City of Hope and Cedars-Sinai.

The move, he said, will hopefully allow Quantgene to demonstrate the product's value and convince insurers to offer it, eventually getting it into more people's hands. At the same time, the cost should draw down.

By 2024, the marketplace for personalized medicine and testing is expected to hit $85 billion, according to Pitchbook.

How does it work?

The company uses what's called cell-free DNA in the bloodstream to look for somatic mutations, those that are unrelated to hereditary factors and indicate a cancer growth.

"It's not a black and white thing," Bhakdi said.

It's more like matching different cancer profiles via machine learning. Using algorithms, the company traces the mutation patterns and compares those patterns to others who have the disease. By comparing the patient's mutation pattern along with their profile, Quantgene determines whether a specific cancer is maturing and tries to spot it.

"What the report does is not tell you whether you have cancer or not. That would be irresponsible," Bhakdi said. "It looks into the mutation pattern of the DNA that is in your gut — which means all the DNA that comes from, say, the diet in your body — and it takes these patterns and gives you a very high-resolution insight into how this compares with people with... all other kinds of medical conditions, including the ten leading cancers."

In 2016, Quantgene launched a clinical trial that will help them determine the sensitivity and specificity of the tests. Their goal is to have 10,000 patient blood samples. So far the company has about 5,000.

quantgeneQuantgene has developed a custom assay for DNA extractionCourtesy of Quantgene

But those working with the company think once it comes to market, it could be a game changer, helping physicians figure out how to deal with early signs of cancer.

"A lot of the companies working in molecular diagnostics don't have a good approach to telling physicians what to do and helping out with decision making. Quantgene has come to understand that that aspect of integrating clinical information and then providing guidance on what to do based on probabilities is helpful and necessary," said Jorge Nieva, an advisor to the company and an oncologist and associate professor at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. "It has the real potential to revolutionize the field of cancer screening because our approach to cancer screening up to this point has really been organ-based."

What distinguishes the company, he said, is they are largely driven by math instead of biology.

"With the large database that Quantgene has built of some 40,000 tumors across 15 different cancers types, you can begin to build those patterns so that you can map those genetic abnormalities back to the anatomy," Nieva said.

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Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: Casetify, Flavors From Afar


Idealab

Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

Type of Funding: Stage agnostic

Focus: Industry Agnostic, AI/Robotics, Consumer, Clean Energy

Notable Past Companies: Lumin, Coinbase, Tenor


Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed

Focus: Industry Agnostic, Connection to South LA and related communities

Notable Past Companies: ChargerHelp, Peadbo


Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

Notable Past Companies: Regard, Hawthorne Effect


MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

Location: Westwood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Health Care, Health Diagnostics, Medical Device

Notable Past Companies: Zeto, Genetesis


KidsX

The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

Location: East Hollywood

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed, early stage

Focus: Pediatric Health Care Innovation

Notable Past Companies: Smileyscope, Zocalo Health


Disney Accelerator

Disney Accelerator is a startup accelerator that provides early-stage companies in the consumer media, entertainment and technology sectors with mentorship, guidance, and investment from Disney executives. The program, now in its 10th year, aims to foster collaborations and partnerships between innovative technology companies and The Walt Disney Company to help them accelerate their growth and bring new experiences to Disney audiences.

Location: Burbank

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Technology and entertainment

Notable Past Companies: Epic Games, BRIT + CO, CAMP


Techstars Space Accelerator

Techstars Space Accelerator is a startup accelerator program focused on advancing the next generation of space technology companies. The three-month mentorship-driven program brings together founders from across the globe to work on big ideas in aerospace, including rapid launch services, precision-based imaging, operating systems for complex robotics, in-space servicing, and thermal protection.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Aerospace

Notable Past Companies: Pixxel, Morpheus Space



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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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Fuel Innovation: 7 Unforgettable Team Building Experiences in LA
Image Source: Discover LA

In today's competitive business landscape, team building activities have emerged as a crucial tool for fostering a positive work environment, enhancing productivity, and crucially, improving employee retention. Studies have shown that such activities help employees feel valued, with one report indicating that 93% of those who felt appreciated were more motivated at work. Importantly, team building events may improve retention rates, as employees who feel connected to their colleagues and company culture are more likely to stay long-term. With these benefits in mind, let's explore some of the most engaging and effective team building activities available in Los Angeles.

Pickleball

Image Source: Modern Luxury Angelino

Pickleball is a fantastic team bonding activity because of the easy-to-grasp rules and gentle pace make it perfect for everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. The game thrives on communication and teamwork, as players must collaborate and strategize to outplay their opponents, boosting team cohesion. Plus, the lively, fast-paced action sparks friendly competition and laughter, creating a fun and spirited atmosphere that brings everyone closer together. Los Angeles boasts numerous pickleball courts that are easy to rent if you have your own equipment. If you need additional assistance organizing your pickleball outing, there are plenty of full-service companies ready to handle every detail for you.

Resources: Pickle Pop, Corporate Pickle


Escape Room

Image Source: The Escape Game

Escape rooms are a great way to build camaraderie. They require participants to work together, combining their problem-solving skills and creativity to overcome challenges and puzzles. The immersive and time-sensitive nature of escape rooms fosters collaboration and communication. Additionally, the shared experience of tackling complex tasks and reaching a common goal helps build trust and foster positive emotions among colleagues.

Resources: The Escape Game, 60Out


Day Trip to Catalina Island

Image Source: Love Catalina

Catalina Island is a perfect day trip for a team because it provides a break from the usual work environment, allowing team members to relax and connect in a new setting. Shared experiences during the trip, such as exploring new places and participating in fun activities, help build stronger relationships and foster a sense of camaraderie. There are numerous team-building activities such as an arboreal obstacle course, an island tour, scavenger hunts and more.

Resources: Catalina Island Group Activities


Top Golf

Image Source: Topgolf

Topgolf is an excellent team building event because it provides an inclusive, relaxed atmosphere that accommodates players of all skill levels, fostering personal connections and improving team morale. The unique blend of competition and entertainment creates an ideal setting for building trust, enhancing communication, and revealing hidden skills among team members. Additionally, Topgolf offers structured team building packages with guided activities, discussion prompts, and lessons on culture, change, collaboration, and strategy, making it a versatile and effective platform for strengthening relationships and boosting overall team performance.

Resources: Topgolf El Segundo


SoFi Stadium Tour

Image Source: Discover LA

A SoFi Stadium tour offers a unique, behind-the-scenes experience of one of the world's most advanced sports venues, allowing team members to explore exclusive areas like premium suites, team locker rooms, and the player tunnel together. The tour provides a shared, memorable experience that can foster camaraderie and spark conversations among team members, regardless of their interest in sports. Additionally, the stadium's state-of-the-art features and impressive architecture can inspire creativity and innovation, while the group setting encourages interaction and collaboration, making it an engaging and enjoyable activity for teams of various sizes and backgrounds

Resources: SoFi Stadium Group Tours


Corporate Volunteering

Image Source: L.A. Works

Volunteer work serves as an excellent team building activity by uniting employees around a shared, meaningful cause, fostering a sense of purpose and collective accomplishment. It provides opportunities for team members to collaborate in new ways, often revealing hidden strengths and leadership qualities that may not be apparent in the regular work environment. Additionally, engaging in community service can boost morale, enhance the company's reputation, and instill a sense of pride among employees, leading to improved workplace relationships and increased job satisfaction.

Resources: Habitat for Humanity, L.A. Works, VolunteerMatch


Corporate Improv Sessions

Image Source: Improv for the People

A corporate improv class encourages spontaneity, creativity, and quick thinking, skills that are valuable in the workplace. It promotes active listening and collaboration, as participants must work together to create scenes and respond to unexpected situations, fostering better communication and trust among team members. Additionally, the playful and often humorous nature of improv helps break down barriers, reduces stress, and creates a shared positive experience that can improve team morale and cohesion long after the event.

Resources: Improv-LA, Groundlings, Improv for the People

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