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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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I used to write about rural lands and life on Native American reservations. In some places, there’s only one doctor for an entire community. In others, a revolving door of clinicians and therapists make it harder for patients to receive comprehensive care.
What an amazing resource, then, could something like telehealth be for people in these far-flung, often marginalized communities who are suffering from depression, addiction or chronic diseases. Except It’s not really shaping up that way: Only 60% of people in rural areas have access to telehealth services, compared to 95% of people in urban settings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Every now and then, a new trend emerges promising to “revolutionize” the health care industry—as though any one company has the power to influence all the fragmented and siloed segments of the health care complex and make them work together. As if we haven’t heard that promise before, and as if the problems that have consistently plagued the industry still don’t exist.
There’s actually a name for that phenomenon: The inverse care law, which was coined by British clinician Julian Tudor Hart in 1971 to describe the prevailing evidence that the people who need care the most tend to receive it the least. Throughout history, emerging technologies and treatments have become ubiquitous among the mainstream population while still overlooking those who needed them the most. Take ketamine therapy; the drug, which is used to help treatment-resistant depression and PTSD, can cost thousands of dollars—barring poor people, who are statistically most vulnerable to those conditions, from accessing it.
Telehealth is the most recent care frontier—one welcomed during the pandemic by governments and insurers alike, as many doctors shuttered their offices to those who did not specifically need in-person treatment. This morning, I wrote about local startup Ruth Health, which raised $2.4 million to offer digital prenatal and postpartum services to parents—an area far too overlooked by our existing health care system. I’ve previously written about Moving Analytics, which is using telehealth to tap into a health care segment that has one of the lowest retention rates, physical therapy. There’s also Within Health, which provides comprehensive virtual care for eating disorders.
As those companies grow and more like them pop up, we ought to think critically about the people who may not always be able to access what they offer. Because if our care gets better and their care stays the same, their care is actually getting worse. — Keerthi Vedantam
The Los Angeles-based startup focuses on prenatal and postpartum care, including one-on-one telehealth sessions with health care professionals who can guide a patient’s recovery after giving birth.
The Santa Monica-based social media giant launched a flying camera called Pixy. The Snapchat-connected drone wasn’t the only major announcement from Snap's Partner Summit on Thursday—here are some of the event's other highlights.
The Irvine-based electric truck and SUV manufacturer has struck an agreement with solar energy company Clearloop to finance a Tennessee solar facility that will help power its EV chargers in the region.
More than 98% of Activision shareholders voted in favor of the deal at a special meeting Thursday, following the recommendation of the Santa Monica-based video game developer’s board of directors. Antitrust regulators could still look to block the deal.
Anduril Industries, the Costa Mesa-based defense technology startup and U.S. military contractor, is reportedly looking to raise at least $500 million in an upcoming funding round at a $7 billion pre-money valuation.
On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Ludis Capital founder Matilda Sung talks about the future of sports and technology, including sports betting, streaming and digital assets like NFTs.
What We’re Reading Elsewhere...
- L.A.-based Camera IQ partners with TikTok to offer brands augmented reality tools on the video-sharing app.
- Wave Sports teams up with the WNBA to create social-first programming.
- Esports organization Team Liquid unveils its newly expanded training facility in Santa Monica.
- A look at Angel City FC and the National Women's Soccer League.
- L.A. based ecommerce platform StackCommerce acquires online marketplace The Fascination.
Downtown Los Angeles-based Moving Analytics, which uses telehealth tools to lower the barriers to entry for the 6 million Americans suffering from heart disease, announced it has raised $6 million in seed funding Monday.
The eight-year-old company has nabbed customers like Highmark Health, Kaiser Permanente and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Its rise is yet another example of how the health industry is embracing telehealth and virtual settings post-pandemic, making access easier to cardiac rehab services, which has been plagued by poor attendance for years.
"I think this is a permanent change," said Moving Analytics co-founder and CEO Harsh Vathsangam. "A lot more patients are getting access to care that would not have had access to care."
Cardiac rehabilitation is a comprehensive set of preventative services often provided to people who have suffered a stroke, heart surgery or heart attack in order to improve their heart health. Patients undergo supervised physical activities and mental health counseling to reduce stress and alleviate future heart problems.
Getting patients to attend can be difficult; only 16% of patients show up to their first class. Cardiac rehab requires people to take extra time out of their day to travel and complete activities, which restricts people who cannot travel because of work schedules or disabilities. Women and minorities, especially, participate in cardiac rehab less often than white men due to scheduling and language barriers.
Cardiac rehab centers are also space-constricted, and scheduling multiple people for physical therapy, especially after work hours, can be difficult. Cofounder and CEO of Moving Analytics Harsh Vathsangam said the company has seen waitlists for classes during the most popular hours span as long as three months.
Moving Analytics CEO and co-founder Harsh Vathsangam, PhD
When a patient is referred to Moving Analytics, the company sends over weight scales, a pressure cuff and an activity tracker, along with instructions on how to download a smartphone app. Patients are paired with a technical support agent to troubleshoot problems, and a coach who is often a registered nurse or an exercise physiologist. After compiling a profile on the patient's behavioral and social determinants of health, coaches take them through a series of activities.
"It's a very, very interactive process," Vathsangam said. "Our coaches work with you to really understand what your day-to-day life plans are. What are the challenges you're facing? And then they act more as mentors to help you pick the goals that you want to achieve success and then give you the clinical expertise."
The $6 million funding will go toward growing support and operational teams within the company, and creating new product features, including a data analytics platform for patient providers, and integrations with the Apple Watch and other wearables.
When the pandemic shuttered access to cardiac rehab centers around the country, health services were quick to pivot to virtual classes. Companies like Texas-based NextGen RPM, as well as institutions like Johns Hopkins, began to coordinate home-based care.
"Our idea was, 'how can we extend this life saving service beyond the four walls of a hospital facility or outpatient facility?'" Vathsangam said. "And that's basically what led us to create our program."
Moving Analytics began offering virtual services in 2015. Vathsangam said he soon found 80% of patients were completing rehab over the 90 day period, while study from the Journals of the American Heart Association found that completion rates for in-person rehab hovered at around 27%. Vathsangam said 40% of its virtual patients were women, while another study found that 80% of women who are prescribed cardiac rehab do not utilize the service.
It will also go to what Vathsangam calls an "AI-based coach" to guide patients through niche lifestyle changes around smoking and diet changes, and to modify patients' exercises based on their progress.
"This is an opportunity to capture and get access to life-saving services for thousands of people who would not otherwise get it," Vathsangam said.
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