Startups, Venture

Harvard prof Omid Farokhzad heads west, setting up a new Bay Area biotech on a mission to start a revolution in pre-symptomatic disease detection

As a Harvard professor with close ties to MIT’s Bob Langer, Omid Farokhzad has enjoyed a high-profile role in the Boston/Cambridge biotech community, where he’s participated in launching a lineup of startups. And now Farokhzad — whose accomplishments extend to his role as physician-scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital — has put it all in his rear view mirror, journeying out to the Bay Area to launch a new biotech he vows can go on to play a revolutionary role in opening the door to the early detection of diseases.

And this time, he’s helming the venture as a first-time CEO.

The company is called Seer, which is taking its place in the bustling biotech hub that Genentech helped create in South San Francisco. The big idea: Shifting away from genomics, Seer’s team has been building a proteomics platform that will do some population-wide explorations, building a mountain of data that can be probed with machine learning tech in search of insights into diseases that can be used to develop liquid biopsy products for early-stage diagnosis.  

Bob Langer

The earlier you are in detecting disease, the better your chances of curing it — or stopping it from becoming a threat. If it works, Seer will build and market liquid biopsy products for pre-symptomatic diseases, starting with cancer and neurology.

Why the abrupt change of locale and jobs? We talked about that.

“If I didn’t put my own fingerprint on (Seer) in a meaningful way,” Farokhzad tells me, “I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

The Bay Area, he adds, is the only place he can find the right talent mix to do this complex tech work on the proteome, a discipline that would require expertise in nanotechnology (his specialty), protein chemistry, machine learning and data analytics for a massive amount of data — “done rapidly at scale.”

Having formed Seer a year ago, Farokhzad left his Cambridge/Boston post last March to join a team that has since grown to 20. During that time, he’s pieced together $36 million in venture support for his company. That group of backers includes Maverick Ventures and Invus.

Philip Ma

MIT’s prolific Langer, who’s allied with his former postdoc student on startups like Blend Therapeutics — which later retooled its tech and changed its name to Tarveda — is in for the ride, leading the scientific advisory group for Seer. And then there’s Philip Ma, the president and chief business development officer. The ex-McKinsey partner set up the Digital Health Technologies and Data Sciences group at Biogen. The rest of the team — which will double in size over the next year — includes a broad range of talents.

Farokhzad believes they should be positioned to start producing clinical readouts from their development work in 2019 and 2020, with their first new product on the 2021 time horizon.

“Preclinical is tough to decipher,” says the scientist. “You have to get into clinical studies to really understand what’s going on.”

The scientist has banked plenty of experience along the way of an eventful career. His list of startups includes Selecta as well as Bind Biosciences, which sold off its assets under bankruptcy.

At this point, the technology he’s now focused on has reached the stage where you can do something fast with a small number of proteins, or take days and weeks to go broad. Farokhzad believes Seer is positioning itself to go broad fast, which could have major implications. Being able at some point to reliably identify pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s, to use the most obvious and challenging example, would open up a new approach to drug development after billions of dollars have been burned up in fruitless R&D programs.

Big dream? You could say so. If Illumina is the leader in genomics, Farokhzad believes the newly unveiled Seer can become a giant just as big following the proteomics pathway.

“There is an extremely large vacuum to fill in becoming a leader in this field,” he says. “We’re talking about many tens of billions of market opportunity.”


Image: Omid Farokhzad. SEER


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