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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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Shira Yevin’s lifelong crusade against a male-dominated music industry began with a pink RV.
After attending the Vans Warped Tour in 2004 and seeing far too few women on the bill, the punk rocker decided to take matters into her own hands: She crashed the tour by parking a pink RV on the campus of Cal State Fullerton and performing on a makeshift stage with her band, Shiragirl. The impromptu show was such a hit that Warped Tour welcomed Yevin back to run an official “Shiragirl Stage,” where female-fronted bands—including artists like Joan Jett and Paramore—performed in the following years.
Now, Yevin is taking an entrepreneurial approach to carve out more space for women in music. She’s the founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based startup Gritty In Pink, which runs an online “marketplace network” that connects music industry professionals with female talent—from musicians and songwriters to engineers and producers. Having launched in beta earlier this year, the startup’s InPink platform lets employers search for talent by skill and demographic.
“Businesses now know they need to find diverse women to hire—but they have no idea where to go to find them,” Yevin told dot.LA.
Whether Gritty In Pink can help solve that imbalance remains to be seen—but what’s clear is that there’s still a huge gender disparity in the music industry that needs addressing. A recent University of Southern California-sponsored study found that there’s been little to no improvement over the last decade in the number of women credited as artists, songwriters or producers on popular songs.
“Women's contributions are often dismissed or devalued,” according to Katherine Pieper, program director at USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which conducted the study on women in music. “They're not given the opportunity to work on these songs, or when they are, their work is not being credited to them.”
The USC study examined credits for 1,000 songs that landed on the year-end Billboard Hot 100 chart over the last decade. Researchers found that just 23.3% of artists on the annual chart were women in 2021—a marginal improvement from 22.7% in 2012. The report’s authors blamed stereotypes around women and their abilities as well as the situations in which they must work, noting women in the music industry are often sexualized by their colleagues.
The music industry is not alone in these dynamics; the film industry has made little progress in addressing its own gender imbalance. Women made up only 25% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on top-grossing films in 2021, according to the latest study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That’s an improvement of just 6 percentage points from 19% in 2015, and up only 8 percentage points from 17% in 1998.
“The findings of my research suggest that progress will be slow—evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary,” Martha Lauzen, the center’s director, told dot.LA.
But just as Gritty In Pink is trying to diversify the music industry’s ranks, so are there startups now looking to bring more women into film production. Launched in 2018, L.A.-based Crewvie is a platform connecting film projects with production workers and vendors, with a focus on advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. Crewvie allows talent to create profiles that voluntarily self-identify their gender, race, sexual orientation or disabilities; productions can use Crewvie to hire such talent, track the composition of their crew and use demographic data to ensure they’re eligible for awards and tax incentives.
“We see Crewvie as a resource for women and other underserved people to be found,” co-founder and CEO Marcei Brown told dot.LA. “So there's no more excuses [like] ‘I can't find’—because they're all collected here in one place.”
From left, Crewvie founders Sandra Jimenez, Jeanette Volturno, Marcei Brown and Camille Alcasid.Photo provided by Crewvie
Film studio Endeavor Content recently struck a deal with Crewvie to deploy the startup’s software across all of its productions. YouTube productions use the platform as well, according to co-founder Jeanette Volturno. Crewvie charges rates ranging from $200 to $1,500 for individual projects, while rates for enterprise clients (such as film studios) depend on the number of people and projects expected to use it.
With less than 10 employees, Crewvie is currently looking to close a seed funding round, with eyes on a larger future funding round to expand the platform into other territories and languages. Crewvie is also considering an expansion into live events like theater productions, as well as a foray into the music industry, Volturno said.
Likewise, Gritty In Pink is still in its “baby stages,” Yevin said, having raised $100,000 from Irvine-based Sunstone Management and the Long Beach Accelerator, with plans for a $1 million pre-seed round. The startup can count singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, of “Come to My Window” fame, among its supporters; Etheridge recently joined Gritty In Pink as a strategic advisor and has a stake in the company.
It also has dreams of expanding beyond the music industry, Yevin noted. “Our big vision is actually to become the global destination to hire female freelancers in every industry,” she said.
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Santa Monica-based indie gaming studio Thatgamecompany has raised $160 million as it seeks to parlay games like “Sky: Children of Light” into a “theme park”-like metaverse experience.
The funding was led by private equity giant TPG—which invested through its tech-focused, $1.5 billion Tech Adjacencies fund—and venture firm Sequoia Capital. Thatgamecompany plans to use the capital to expand its roughly 100-person staff to more than 150 people and develop upcoming games, co-founder and CEO Jenova Chen told VentureBeat.
The startup was founded in 2006, by University of Southern California students Chen and Kellee Santiago, with the goal of creating games that put the player at the center of an emotional escapade. The studio got its start with the title “Flow” for Sony’s PlayStation 3; the Japanese firm was an early investor in Thatgamecompany, providing it with a three-game production deal and housing the four-person startup at Sony’s Los Angeles office.
Thatgamecompany co-founder and CEO Jenova Chen.
Courtesy of Thatgamecompany
Thatgamecompany later won critical acclaim for its 2012 PlayStation game “Journey,” as well as its most recent game, 2019’s “Sky: Children of Light,” which was released on mobile devices and the Nintendo Switch. “Sky” won several awards and has been downloaded more than 160 million times.
Chen told VentureBeat his larger goal is to turn games like “Sky” into an immersive, interactive “theme park” experience. “There isn’t that equivalent of a kind of Disneyland experience or a Pixar movie experience in the game industry even today,” he said. “Hopefully, Sky and our future games will all be part of the theme parks in the future, like in a connected metaverse.”
To that end, Thatgamecompany also announced that Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull has joined the company as a “principal advisor on creative culture and strategic growth.”
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