From Stem Cells to Biosensors: 3 Trends To Watch at This Year’s First Look Startup Showcase
Some 15-odd years ago, the Alliance for SoCal Innovation put on a workshop for academics looking to wade into the world of commercialized technology.
Fast forward to 2022 and the Alliance is gearing up for the latest edition of its annual First Look SoCal Innovation Showcase, taking place Tuesday at the Skirball Cultural Center. This year’s lineup of 24 early-stage life sciences and tech startups—tapped from the Alliance’s network of universities and incubators—will have the chance to pitch their ventures and meet with potential investors, mentors and industry executives as they look for what, in most cases, will be their first round of commercial funding.
The life cycle of biotech and medtech companies often starts at the academic level, where universities like Caltech, USC and UCLA pump research dollars into PhD projects and incubate them for a few years until there’s proof of concept. Others are incubated at research institutions like the Lundquist Institute or City of Hope. From there, those projects that choose to become startups are spun out into standalone ventures and begin their hunt for venture capital money.
“This is often a perilous journey from lab to market,” Steve Gilison, the Alliance for SoCal Innovation’s chief operating officer, told dot.LA. “So we don't just think of this as an investment pitch, but as an opportunity to really make the right connections.”
It also gives the rest of us a peek into what kind of cutting-edge technology is most interesting to early-stage SoCal investors. Here’s what we can glean from this year’s cadre of startups at the First Look showcase.
Stem Cell Therapy Could Replace Current Invasive Treatments
Stem cell therapy continues to be one of the most prominent trends in disease treatment. Some of the largest biotech companies working on stem cell therapies are based in Los Angeles; the Food and Drug Administration recently approved Santa Monica-based Kite Pharma’s CAR-T cell treatment for some forms of cancer, which could reduce or even eliminate the need for extensive radiation or other treatments loaded with dangerous side effects.
A handful of biotech startups at the First Look showcase are utilizing stem cells to tackle diseases in a similar manner. Chimera Therapeutics, a startup out of City of Hope, uses “mixed chimerism”—where stem cells from a donor and the patient are mixed together in the patient’s tissue—to treat autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis. The goal is to use donor stem cells to help boost a weakened immune system and potentially halt the progression of a disorder.
Simurx, another showcase participant that’s a product of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, is following local biotechs like Kite and Appia Bio in deploying CAR-T cell therapy—in Simurx’s case, to address solid tumors.
Despite how promising these cell therapies have been, the technology is still rather new, largely cost-prohibitive and comes with long wait times for patients. UC Irvine’s Cellecho aims to make the process of creating these therapies faster through precision engineering. Most existing tools on the market require great care to precisely engineer cells, which make them hard to scale and can lead to longer wait times to receive treatment. Cellecho’s tool—called the Acoustic-Electric Shear Orbiting Poration—is able to deliver genetic coding molecules into several cells at once. It can be automated and the disposable cartridges can be mass-produced, which should drive down costs.
Cultured Meat May Do Away with Unsustainable Meat Farming
Lab-grown meat promises to bring humane, environmentally-friendly disruption to a global meat market that is projected to be a $2.7 trillion industry by 2040, according to CB Insights. Some of the largest meat manufacturers in the U.S., such as Tyson Foods, have already invested in cultured meat that only requires a few animal cells to cultivate a protein. If embraced, these technologies could eventually do away with the need for factory farming, which accounts for 70% of the U.S.’s ammonia emissions.
Bluefin Foods, a UCLA spin-out, is entering the foray with lab-grown seafood cultivated from animal cells. The company says its technology, if borne out, could replace commercial fishing, which contributes to fish depopulation and ocean habitat degradation.
At this stage, lab-grown meat is still more expensive than its factory-farmed counterpart. But if startups like Bluefin are able to gain traction and scale, that may not be the case in the future.
The Biosensor Sector Could Pave the Way for Preventative Health Care
As the American health care industry struggles to provide a preventative model—one that would help patients avoid illnesses and ailments while lowering health care spending overall—a few nascent ventures are attempting to leverage technology to make out-of-reach tests and treatments easier to access.
UCLA’s ViBo Health is in the backyard of one of Apple’s preferred biosensor manufacturers: Pasadena-based Rockley Photonics, which makes sensors that track blood pressure, hydration and a slew of other biomarkers. Wearables like the Apple Watch and Google’s Fitbit are among the largest customers for biosensors that were once reserved for the doctor’s office.
ViBo’s trajectory, however, is slightly different. Rather than affixing its biosensors to the body, its scanners—which track cholesterol, glucose and cardiac biomarkers—will be in pharmacies, clinics, gyms and offices. Lowering the barrier to entry and allowing patients to more quickly and easily check their own biomarkers may unburden the diagnostics space, as routine tests can be cost- and time-prohibitive for labs that often have more pressing tests to run.
Zoetic Motion, a startup in the physical therapy space, is taking a different approach. Physical therapy attendance among patients after a stroke or injury is notoriously low, yet critical to ensuring a full recovery and preventing a recurrence. Through an interactive and gamified platform, Zoetic allows physical therapists to prescribe exercise routines that promise to improve patients’ engagement and help them build habits that keep them out of the hospital. One L.A.-based startup and First Look alum, Moving Analytics, raised $6 million in seed funding last year with a similar philosophy toward improving patient engagement at rehabilitation centers.
Besides Moving Analytics, several other startups that previously participated in the First Look showcase have also gone on to raise funds from investors. One notable success story is San Diego-based RNA therapeutics firm DTx Pharma, which has raised more than $100 million since it first appeared at the showcase in 2019.
This year’s crop of ambitious young companies will hope Tuesday’s event can be a platform that helps them replicate that kind of success.
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