Vik Bajaj. Foresite Labs

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.

Jim Tanan­baum

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.

Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.

Bay­er plots a ma­jor facelift at Berke­ley cam­pus, un­cork­ing a 30-year, $1.2B plan to dri­ve cell and gene ther­a­pies

Bayer first set roots in Berkeley back in 1974, when it was still operating as Miles Labs. The site has pumped out three hemophilia A treatments for distribution worldwide; but now, as the pharma continues its cell and gene therapy push, it has something bigger in mind.

Bayer is planning a 30-year revamp at the campus, which includes 918,000 square feet in new buildings and double the jobs, according to a report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

LLS backs 5 new can­cer drug projects with up to $50M; Trodelvy con­tin­ues to im­press with more TNBC da­ta

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has tapped 5 new early-stage projects to back with up to $10 million each in fresh investments. The 5 biotechs are:

— Caribou, headed by Rachel Haurwitz and co-founded by Jennifer Doudna, is working on next-gen, off-the-shelf CAR-Ts to replace the patient-derived cells now in use.

— The LLS supported NexImmune’s IPO, helping fund its work on nanoparticles that can gin up an immune response directed at cancer cells. The biotech has 2 projects now in Phase I trials.

Steffen Schuster, ITM CEO

Ra­dio­phar­ma re­mains hot as Ger­many's ITM rais­es $109M to ad­vance neu­roen­docrine can­cer pro­gram

The world of radiopharmaceuticals has been heating up over the last few years, and Thursday saw another company focused on the field pull in a new nine-figure raise.

Germany’s ITM, or Isotopen Technologien München, scored a $109 million round of loan financing to push forward its precision oncology pipeline and fund late-stage development for its lead program. As part of the agreement, the loan will convert to shares in the event of future financial or corporate transactions, ITM said.

Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures)

Ear­ly Zymer­gen in­vestor Jen­ny Rooke re­flects on 'chimeras' in biotech, what it takes to spot a $500M gem

When Jenny Rooke first heard of Zymergen back in 2014, she knew she was looking at something different and exciting. The Emeryville, CA biotech held the promise of blending biology and technology to solve a huge unmet need for cost-effective chemicals — of all things — and a stellar founding team to boot.

But back then, West Coast venture capitalists didn’t see in Zymergen the one thing they were looking for in a winning biotech: therapeutic potential. Rooke, however, saw an opportunity and made her bets. Seven years later, that bet is paying off in a big way.

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