Vik Bajaj unveils Foresite's new incubator, looking to hatch future giants crossing tech and healthcare
When it comes to harnessing data for healthcare and the life sciences, a rich infrastructure of expansive data collected and measured with the right tools are essential to uncover new insights and advance new products. And to build that, you need access to diverse talents backed by a patient investor.
Just ask Vik Bajaj. The former UC Berkeley researcher first left academia for Verily, Google’s foray into life sciences, where he saw the methods of marrying computation and biology were nearing maturity. After a few years as CSO there he moved on to Grail working towards the early detection of cancer — another data intensive endeavor — before landing his current role as managing director of Foresite Capital.
Yet in spite of all the progress he’s seen and helped propagate, it’s not quite there yet. There is still a gap between what’s currently available and what he sees as a transformation in healthcare enabled by the information revolution.
“Really what we perceive — and obviously I’m not alone in stating this — is that there is an economic crisis in our healthcare system where we are spending so much of our national product on healthcare and yet we have outcomes that are actually in decline in many populations,” Bajaj told Endpoints News. “And we think that there are many ways to make that industry more efficient and more responsive to the needs of its patients, but obviously this idea of using data science, the power of measurements, of understanding of experiments is fundamental to generating reliable evidence that will solve some of these large healthcare problems.”
The notion is what spurred him and Foresite CEO Jim Tananbaum to launch Foresite Labs, an entrepreneurial incubator designed to nurture some of the foundational companies at the nexus of data science and healthcare.
Foresite Labs removes three of the biggest barriers for startups in this space, according to Bajaj: It offers a pool of public and proprietary datasets, which would be expensive for any one company to generate; an analysis platform consisting of the leading tools to aid with clinical application of data; as well as a seasoned team of 20-plus — between the Boston and San Francisco offices — to offer scientific, technical and business support. As part of that, they also hook companies up with partners for resources such as lab space.
Correspondingly, he sees three types of ventures that would benefit the most from their incubation — and that they would be most interested in.
The first involves therapeutic opportunities centered around functional genomics; the second group build the infrastructure needed for clinical development using real-world evidence; the third category would look into personalized healthcare delivery based on individual assessment of disease risk.
Outside of these high level details, though, he’s letting little else slip about what Foresite Labs has been working on over the past year. The capital Foresite has to deploy, the number of ventures they would back at any one time, the capabilities they are considering adding — these are all staying under wraps.
One thing we know, though, is that Foresite has plenty of firepower and patience to seed companies where they see potential. Last May the firm closed its fourth fund at a record $668 million and vowed to beef up their machine learning chops to enable better investment decisions.
“We’re getting into this area where we believe through long experience has tremendous potential,” he said. “But it’s a potential that will be realized roughly over the next decade. […] That means that we’re going to be initially very measured in what we do, and very deliberate in launching a few high quality companies without putting numbers or targets on it.”
The team of experts they’ve recruited to Foresite Labs, he added, should prove to be the greatest asset over the long run. They include:
- Alex Blocker, head of data science (formerly of Grail and Verily)
- Rick Dewey, head of genomics discovery (formerly of the Regeneron Genetics Center)
- Damien Soghoian, head of operations and strategy (formerly of Verily)
- Paul Da Silva Jardine, head of drug discovery (formerly of Pfizer)
On top of that, he’s assembled a star-studded scientific advisory board featuring Mathai Mammen of J&J, Paola Arlotta of Harvard, Euan Ashley of Stanford, Calum MacRae of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Steve Finkbeiner of Gladstone, Jeff Huber and Alex Aravanis of Grail, as well as Ruslan Medzhitov of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
“Obviously it will be an area that will be much bigger than what Foresite Labs does, but I think that we are a little bit ahead and so poised to have a huge influence over the transformation,” Bajaj said.