Exclusive: Vik Bajaj set out almost 2 years ago to hatch new companies that would shake up healthcare with data science. Here are 5 directions he's taking at Foresite Labs
If it was clear in late 2019 that the US healthcare system is poised for transformation, Vik Bajaj believes the Covid-19 pandemic rammed the gas pedal by laying bare the “fundamental inefficiencies and inequalities.”
Take, for instance, the idea that the most cost-effective way to treat disease is to catch it early. That was the mission at Grail, the high-flying cancer detection startup that he had been CSO of. But at Foresite, where he’s now managing director, they expected widespread emphasis on preventative care would take about a decade to achieve — as with many of the changes in business models that they were hoping for.
“It’s happening far more quickly than I would ever have guessed a few years ago,” he said.
The other difference? Foresite Labs, the incubator that he has been spearheading, is now home to five fledgling companies that would test out some of the other big ideas Bajaj and his colleagues believe would fill critical gaps in the healthcare system. And they’ve assembled a dream team of entrepreneurs in residence as well as scientific advisors to refine those startups using the datasets and tools on the nascent platform.
With the exception of one, the companies are all still in stealth mode. But in an interview with Endpoints News, Bajaj offered a look behind the curtain of what they are working on.
Sestina Bio, the only company that’s launched, is a synthetic biology player aiming to create sustainable sources for chemicals and materials through “high-throughput, high-definition single cell experiments” in combination with machine learning algorithms.
Then there are two separate efforts to take precision medicines outside of oncology — one to autoimmune diseases and another to cardiometabolic disorders. A fourth company seeks to map the “protein interactome” and modulate the way proteins interact with one another, while the last is working on collating real-time, real-world data.
Bajaj highlighted three seasoned biotech execs who are helping run these ventures: June Lee, who helped steer a heart drug targeted at a genetically defined patient population as chief development officer at MyoKardia (now part of Bristol Myers Squibb); Zach Sweeney, the former Denali CSO who brings chemistry expertise; and Doug Foster, founder of health data aggregation provider Verana Health.
Moving forward, he envisions creating a couple of companies a year.
“Starting 5 companies in 18 months has been very intense and we’re unlikely to start that many at that pace,” Bajaj said. “What we continue to look for are entrepreneurs in residence who want to change this part of the world, change the healthcare system and have the ambition to be on a platform like that. That’s what’s really going to gate the number of companies that we create — it’s in finding those good relationships and people who really want to adopt something as their mission or come to us with ideas that they think we can help with.”