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Liquid biopsy startup Freenome lands $5.5 million led by Andreessen Horowitz

TechCrunch TechCrunch 9/06/2016 Connie Loizos

Freenome, a year-old liquid biopsy diagnosis platform that detects the cell-free DNA sequencing of cancer, has landed $5.5 million in seed funding led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from Founders Fund, Data Collective, and Third Kind Venture Capital.

The deal is a bit of a coup, coming as it does from Andreessen Horowitz’s months-old, $200 million Bio Fund. The vehicle, led by longtime Stanford professor Vijay Pande, has now made a handful of investments (almost all undisclosed). But its stamp of approval for Freenome is meaningful given the number of liquid biopsy companies that Pande is seeing and not funding.

The technology is “very hot,” says Pande. The reason why, he explains, is that beyond the first challenge of catching cancer with liquid biopsies instead of by extracting tissue (which entrepreneurs are solving), and beyond the second challenge of detecting cancer from DNA (which is also being done), the biggest challenge in medical testing today is pinpointing exactly where a cancer is growing and how serious a threat it is. He calls it part of the “holy grail.”

The “cure to cancer isn’t going to look like another drug,” says Pande. “It will be our ability to predict that someone has cancer far before traditional means, then giving [those diagnosed with the disease] existing drugs. At least 80 percent or more of cancers could be treated successfully if only they were caught ahead of time.”

Apparently, Freenome has come the closest that Pande has seen to striking on the right understanding of both computer science and biology to detect the mutations that make it possible to diagnose particular cancers — and determine the best course of treatment for them based on their composition.

Freenome cofounder and CEO Gabe OtteBut explains in this way in a post about Freenome’s technology:

Freenome is the dynamic collection of genetic material floating in our blood (cell-free) derived from the trillions of cells in our bodies. It is our living cell-free genome changing over time. So your freenome is a genomic thermometer of who you are as you grow, live, and age (and unfortunately that includes disease).

By understanding one’s freenome, we have been able to develop early detection tests for cancer. Our technology relies on a deep fusion of genomics research and computational expertise. Modern DNA sequencing has enabled us to answer traditionally biological questions with computational solutions. However, biology is not as deterministic as technology. So most of the time, people focus on reducing the biology down to simplified, easily digestible models.

Unfortunately, when detecting complex, constantly changing diseases like cancer, a reductive, somewhat static approach is insufficient. . . So we built a learning engine that is able to look at our genetic health in the most non-reductive way possible. Rather than creating a cancer test by fixating on a few mutations that have previously been associated with the disease, we allowed our technology to aid us in detecting every possible signature of cancer — and the correct combination of them that allowed us to develop an accurate test.

Not that it’s a slam dunk. Even Otte admits that while the young company has validated its tests with hundreds of samples, and that it’s “likely to work on thousands and tens of thousands of samples,” what Freenome didn’t want to do is “blow $100 million” in venture capital on its platform before its technology is proven beyond a doubt. (Presumably, that “$100 million” number is a reference to companies like Guardant Health that have raised big-league rounds in recent years. Guardant makes a non-invasive genomic sequencing test for cancer.)

Pande doesn’t seem overly concerned. He says he has met with Freenome’s five-person team “many times over the last nine months. I’ve seen their trajectory. And while there is work to do, they are moving very fast.”

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