YourChoice Therapeutics is developing unisex, non-hormonal birth control

The options available to women who want to avoid getting pregnant today are bad. Most, like the widely used birth control pill, feed man-made estrogen and progestin hormones to women, which are capable of causing a number of awful side effects.

YourChoice Therapeutics — a startup launched by a team of Berkeley researchers, including two experts in sperm physiology and sperm-egg interactions — dreams of producing a unisex, non-hormonal alternative to existing contraceptives. The company has raised $400,000 in funding to date, plus a $150,000 check from Y Combinator. YourChoice will make its big pitch at Y Combinator Demo Days next week.

It’s seeking $2 million in venture capital funding to continue research on its sperm cell-targeting novel method of contraception, as well as to build out its team of chemists. Founders Akash Bakshi and Nadja Mannowetz tell TechCrunch they plan to have a contraceptive ready to market by 2025. Together, with co-founder and advisor Dr. Polina V. Lishko of Berkeley’s department of cell and molecular biology, they hope to reach women and men all over the world, in the process tapping a market expected to be worth $37 billion by 2023.

“There are perhaps ways that we could cut that time in half or just get something to market,” said Bakshi, YourChoice’s chief executive officer, whose background is in technology commercialization, research and development within the life sciences industry. “But we need to do this right so that we can benefit as many women as possible.”

Their first product will be a vaginal contraceptive to be applied before intercourse, then, the startup plans to release oral contraceptives for both genders. The team has discovered that the natural compound lupeol is capable of blocking a protein on sperm that is required for fertilization. YourChoice‘s non-hormonal approach doesn’t impact a cells’ ability to function or gene expression, so women and men are not at an increased risk of blood clots, cancer or other side effects associated with mainstream birth control methods’ use of added hormones.

“The bottom line is men don’t have good options and women apparently have so many choices, yet they are all really bad,” Mannowetz, a Ph.D. in sperm physiology, told TechCrunch. “They’re all based on that over 60-year-old idea of hormone-based drugs.”

YourChoice’s planned debut product will be applied directly in the vagina during the period of the month in which the woman is fertile. Whether that be a tablet, a gel or some other form factor is still up in the air. YourChoice’s second product will be an oral contraceptive because they believe that is the most convenient, universally accepted method.

“For women who have an implant … I understand that this might be a step backward, but women who have been on the pill for decades, for them, it wouldn’t be a big change,” Mannowetz said. “We totally understand we will not serve every woman out there but we need to get started with a product and then take it from there.”

“If the last 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that delivery is something that can continue to be developed,” she continued. “We need to develop a new mode of action.”

There are a number of startups innovating in the contraception space, as TechCrunch has written, though most of those businesses are focused on the access problem. Birth control can be very difficult for many to access and startups like The Pill Club or Nurx solve that problem by delivering the pill directly to women’s doorsteps. Other early-stage companies in the space lack experts in the field of reproductive biology necessary to improve contraceptive options. YourChoice’s team says seeking change to the actual medication with an advanced team sets them apart from other upstarts.

For YourChoice, it helps that venture capital investment in the reproductive tech space is increasing, making this a great time for YC to support these businesses (YourChoice isn’t the only reproductive tech startup in the latest YC cohort) and for YourChoice to successfully nab private investment.

“I personally think the industry is satisfied; they are making really good money, right? So why should they change anything,” Mannowetz said. “Millennials are the starting point of change happening. I think now, women stand up and say, ‘we are sick of it.’ ”

A healthcare investment fund has become one of Israel’s largest with a $660 million close

One of Israel’s single largest venture capital funds is a new later stage vehicle focused on healthcare.

The aMoon investment firm launched its second vehicle in April 2018 and it just announced its final close with $660 million in assets under management — making it one of the largest (if not the largest) firm in the country.

“We plan to leverage Israel’s ecosystem of breakthrough science and disruptive tech innovation to accelerate cure and reshape global healthcare.” said Dr. Yair Schindel MD, Co-Founder & Managing Partner of aMoon, in a statement. “This raise is a vote of confidence for the Israeli HealthTech ecosystem that extends beyond Israel’s borders, to include the sizable community of Israeli entrepreneurs and researchers in global hubs, such as Silicon Valley and Boston.”

The firm’s second fund will have a strategy focused on later stage, lower risk companies in which aMoon will invest larger checks, according to an email from the firm’s co-founder and managing director, Dr. Schindel.

Ticket size for deals will range anywhere from $10 million to $20 million on the low end with the potential for follow-on investments ranging from $40 million to $50 million, Dr. Schindel said.

This larger check size is a function of the fund’s expansion. While the first aMoon fund was a $200 million, fund from a single limited partner (Marius Nacht, the co-founder and chairman of Check Point Software), the new fund counts 50 investors globally, including Credit Suisse which committed $250 million from their asset management and private banking groups. Goldman Sachs, also participated alongside an undisclosed Israeli investment firm.

Since its launch, aMoon 2 has made five investments in companies like Zebra Medical Vision, Cartiheal, Ayala Pharmaceuticals, Biolojic Design, and a still-in-stealth mode fifth company.

Broadly speaking, those deals align with the firm’s broader investment strategy which Schindel described as tackling diseases that are “either the worst killers or the largest cost-drivers of healthcare such as: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and infectious diseases.”

For Schindel and his colleagues at the firm, Israel represents an incredibly fertile market for developing new healthcare technologies.

The country boasts highly curated electronic medical records for nearly the entire population dating back more than 20 years. That means Israel has one of the most complete electronic pictures of its national population health extant in the world today.

And the Israeli government recently launched a $272 million investment scheme into digital health projects over the next five years

“The biggest opportunity today lies in the convergence of technology and biology and the shift from care which is reactive to care which is predictive, preventive and personalized,” says Schindel in a statement.

And the presence of large consumer tech companies in the healthcare market these days, means good things to come for startup companies, according to Schindel.

:Their presence means a larger universe of buyers as well as a much faster pace of development in a relatively conservative industry which is currently undergoing a massive digital transformation,” he wrote in an email.

 

Lack of transparency in healthcare startups risks another Theranos implosion

Are more Theranos -style scandals looming for investors in healthcare startups?

A team of researchers associated with the Meta Research Innovation Center at Stanford thinks so. They’ve  published a paper warning investors in life sciences startups that a systemic lack of transparency exists in their portfolio companies — creating the possibility for more multi-billion dollar implosions and scandals like the one that toppled Theranos and its charismatic founder, Elizabeth Holmes.

Indeed, one of the study’s authors, Dr. John Ioannidis, the co-director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford and director of the University’s PhD program in Epidemiology and Clinical Research, was  among the first people to identify the risks associated with Theranos and its “stealth research”.

Now Dr. Ioannidis and his co-authors, Ioana A. Cristea and Eli M. Cahan have published a study surveying the publicly available research from the largest privately held companies in the healthcare space, and found them lacking. 

Most of the highest valued startups in healthcare have not published any significant scientific literature, the study found. Nearly half of the publications from companies worth over $1 billion came from only two startups — 23andMe and Adaptive Biotechnologies, according to the paper.

“Many years ago I was the first person to say that Theranos had a problem,” says Ioannidis. “The problem that I had then was that Theranos did not have any peer-reviewed evidence to show.”

In an interview and in their paper, Ioannidis and Cahan warn that investors have overlooked systemic problems created by the lack of transparency among healthcare startups by

They write:

“It would be tempting to dismiss the Theranos case as just one rotten apple. However, we worry that the focus on fraud puts aside a more fundamental concern. Fraud is making waves in the news, but stealth research may have a more detrimental impact.”

According to the study’s findings, more than half of the healthcare startups that are worth more than $1 billion have published no highly cited papers at all. For companies that were acquired or are publicly traded that number is around 40%.

In all, healthcare startups that are currently valued at over $1 billion published 425 Pubmed papers. And of those papers only 34 (8%, including 2 reviews) were highly cited. For companies with valuations of over $1 billion who had been acquired or are publicly traded on stock exchanges, the researchers counted 413 papers, of which 47 (11%, including 9 reviews) were highly-cited.

Digging deeper into some of the companies which had high valuations but little or no published research revealed scores of operational and technological issues for the researchers.

For instance, StemCentrx, which was bought for $10.2 billion in 2016 by AbbVie, had published 16 papers — and only one highly-cited paper. Since the acquisition, the Food and Drug Administration had imposed a delay on the readout of the company’s phase II trial for its Rova T targeted antibody drug for cancer treatment. In December a Phase III trial for Rova T as a second-line treatment for patients with advanced small cell lung cancer was halted, because the treatment wasn’t working, according to a report in Targeted Oncology

Acerta Pharma, another healthcare focused startup focused on cancer treatments was bought by AstraZeneca for $7.3 billion. That company published nine articles and had one highly-cited paper for a very early study of a potential treatment for relapsed chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Acerta received accelerated approval for a drug called acalabrutinib, which treats a rare form of lymphoma called mantle cell lymphoma. Two years ago, AstraZeneca had to retract data and admit that Acerta falsified preclinical data for its drug.

Then there’s Intarcia, the developer of a device for diabetes treatment that’s worth $5.5 billion. That company had its device rejected by the FDA and was forced to lay off staff and halt a couple of later stage trials. It had only published six papers — none of them very highly cited.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that highly valued healthcare startups don’t contribute to published research and that the valuation of these companies by investors is divorced from any externally validated data.

For the researchers (and for investors) this should presents a problem.

“Many unicorns may be overvalued [21] and subject to unrealistic scientific expectations,” the study’s authors write. And they reject the argument that simply applying for — and receiving — patents is enough to prove that a technology in the healthcare space has been thoroughly vetted. “[Patents] do not offer the same level of documentation as peer-reviewed articles. For example, Theranos had over 100 patents [1], but these were unable to supplant the vacuum in their evidence,” the researchers wrote. 

Even if companies want to protect their technology, there are still ways for them to be more transparent about the results or benefits of their technology. The authors acknowledge that publishing isn’t the primary mission of startups. They can, however publish a few high-value articles, secure their technology through patents and then work with researchers, universities or hospitals to validate the technology and have those organizations publish results of the tests, the authors argue.

As the authors conclude:

Start-ups are key purveyors of innovation and disruption. Consequently, holding them to a minimal standard of evaluation from the scientific community is crucial. Participation in peer review, with all its limitations, is the best way we have to uphold this standard. We are not arguing that start-ups should divert excessive resources to having peer-reviewed papers. However, when their products are destined to affect patient health, they should neither be solely doing marketing. Confidential data sharing with potential investors or regulators cannot replace more open scrutiny by the scientific community.

 

Dog cancer treatment startup raises $5 million from Andreessen Horowitz and others

One in every three dogs gets cancer, according to the National Canine Cancer Foundation. OneHealth, a startup that just raised a $5 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Bio fund with participation from Lerer Hippeau and Y Combinator, aims to make it easier for humans to treat canine cancer, which is the number one disease killer of pups.

“Prevalence and incidence for cancer is much higher with dogs,” OneHealth founder and CEO Christina Lopes told TechCrunch over the phone.

OneHealth’s Fidocure product is designed to make treating your dog’s cancer more accessible and affordable. It specifically utilizes next-generation gene sequencing to better understand the genetic mutation that is causing an individual dog’s cancer. From there, Fidocare offers recommendations and an action plan to the human, outlining the best therapeutic implications and targeted treatment.

“The purpose of the company is actionability,” Lopes said. “The test is the first step. From there, if there’s a certain mutation present, we’ll say what the FDA-approve drugs with data in dogs available are. We’ve been able to then work with pharmaceutical partners and other compounding pharmacies.”

If your dog gets diagnosed with cancer, your veterinarian may recommend OneHealth’s product. Still, you’ll continue to take your pup to the veterinarian, as OneHealth says it is “100 percent partnered with veterinarians,” who must be able to see the furry friend in real life.

The drugs recommended are FDA approved for humans, but do have data relevant to dogs. That’s where OneHealth says it’s invested time and money in understanding those targeted drugs and their impact on dogs.

“While we didn’t develop the drugs, we’ve had to be the ones to do a lot more to close the information gap,” Lopes said.

OneHealth charges veterinarians directly. From there, the vet may or may not charge the patient. Average cancer care for dogs cost $6,700, Lopes said. With markup, OneHealth is designed to cost less than the average cost of care, she said.

“Advances in our understanding of cancer biology have revolutionized how we diagnose and treat human cancers,” A16Z GP Jorge Conde said in a statement. “As research continues to uncover similarities between certain dog and human cancers, OneHealth not only will harness these advances to transform how we care for our pets, but also has a unique opportunity to impact human health as it discovers better ways to manage this devastating disease in dogs.”

China’s Infervision is helping 280 hospitals worldwide detect cancers from images

Until recently, humans have relied on the trained eyes of doctors to diagnose diseases from medical images.

Beijing-based Infervision is among a handful of artificial intelligence startups around the world racing to improve medical imaging analysis through deep learning, the same technology that powers face recognition and autonomous driving.

The startup, which has to date raised $70 million from leading investors like Sequoia Capital China, began by picking out cancerous lung cells, a prevalent cause of death in China. At the Radiological Society of North America’s annual conference in Chicago this week, the three-year-old company announced extending its computer vision prowess to other chest-related conditions like cardiac calcification.

“By adding more scenarios under which our AI works, we are able to offer more help to doctors,” Chen Kuan, founder and chief executive officer of Infervision, told TechCrunch. While a doctor can spot dozens of diseases from one single image scan, AI needs to be taught how to identify multiple target objects in one go.

But Chen says machines already outstrip humans in other aspects. For one, they are much faster readers. It normally takes doctors 15 to 20 minutes to scrutinize one image, whereas Infervision’s AI can process the visuals and put together a report under 30 seconds.

AI also addresses the longstanding issue of misdiagnosis. Chinese clinical newspaper Medical Weekly reported that doctors with less than five years’ experience only got their answers right 44 percent of the time when diagnosing black lung, a disease common among coal miners. And research from Zhejiang University that examined autopsies between 1950 to 2009 found that the total clinical misdiagnosis rate averaged 46 percent.

“Doctors work long hours and are constantly under tremendous stress, which can lead to errors,” suggested Chen.

The founder claimed that his company is able to improve the accuracy rate by 20 percent. AI can also fill in for doctors in remote hinterlands where healthcare provision falls short, which is often the case in China.

Winning the first client

infervision medical imaging

A report on bone fractures produced by Infervision’s medical imaging tool

Like any deep learning company, Infervision needs to keep training its algorithms with data from varied sources. As of this week, the startup is working with 280 hospitals — among which 20 are outside of China — and steadily adding a dozen new partners weekly. It also claims that 70 percent of China’s top-tier hospitals use its lung-specific AI tool.

But the firm has had a rough start.

Chen, a native of Shenzhen in south China, founded Infervision after dropping out of his doctoral program at the University of Chicago where he studied under Nobel-winning economist James Heckman. For the first six months of his entrepreneurial journey, Chen knocked on the doors of 40 hospitals across China — to no avail.

“Medical AI was still a novelty then. Hospitals are by nature conservative because they have to protect patients, which make them reluctant to partner with outsiders,” Chen recalled.

Eventually, Sichuan Provincial People’s Hospital gave Infervision a shot. Chen with his two founding members got hold of a small batch of image data, moved into a tiny apartment next to the hospital, and got the company underway.

“We observed how doctors work, explained to them how AI works, listened to their complaints, and iterated our product,” said Chen. Infervision’s product proved adept, and its name soon gathered steam among more healthcare professionals.

“Hospitals are risk-averse, but as soon as one of them likes us, it goes out to spread the word and other hospitals will soon find us. The medical industry is very tight-knit,” the founder said.

It also helps that AI has evolved from a fringe invention to a norm in healthcare over the past few years, and hospitals start actively seeking help from tech startups.

Infervision has stumbled in its foreign markets as well. In the U.S., for example, Infervision is restricted to visiting doctors only upon appointments, which slows product iteration.

Chen also admitted that many western hospitals did not trust that a Chinese startup could provide state-of-the-art technology. But they welcomed Infervision in as soon as they found out what it’s able to achieve, which is in part thanks to its data treasure — up to 26,000 images a day.

“Regardless of their technological capability, Chinese startups are blessed with access to mountains of data that no startups elsewhere in the world could match. That’s an immediate advantage,” said Chen.

There’s no lack of rivalry in China’s massive medical industry. Yitu, a pivotal player that also applies its AI to surveillance and fintech, unveiled a cancer detection tool at the Chicago radiological conference this week.

Infervision, which generates revenues by charging fees for its AI solution as a service, says that down the road, it will prioritize product development for conditions that incur higher social costs, such as cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases.

Hospital in China denies links to world’s first gene-edited babies

News of the world’s first ever gene-edited human babies being born in China caused a huge stir on Monday after the MIT Technology Review and the Associated Press brought the project to light. People in and outside China rushed to question the ethical implications of the scientific breakthrough, reportedly the fruit of a Chinese researcher named He Jiankui from a university in Shenzhen.

There’s another twist to the story.

According to the AP, He had sought and received approval from Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women’s and Children’s Hospital to kick off the experiment. The MIT Technology Review’s report also linked to documents stating that He’s research received the green light from HarMoniCare’s medical ethics committee.

When contacted by TechCrunch, however, a HarMoniCare spokesperson said she was not aware of He’s genetic test and that the hospital is probing the validity of the circulated documents. TechCrunch will update when the case makes progress.

“What we can say for sure is that the gene editing process did not take place at our hospital. The babies were not born here either,” the spokesperson said of He’s project.

He, who studied at Rice and Standford Universities, led a research team at Southern University of Science and Technology which set out to eliminate the gene associated with HIV, smallpox, and cholera by utilizing the CRISPR gene-editing tool, according to the MIT Technology Review. The technology is ethically fraught because changes to the embryo will pass on to future generations. He’s daring initiative is set to cause debate at the upcoming Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, which he will attend.

It’s also noteworthy that HarMoniCare belongs to the vast Putian network, a fold of 8,000 private healthcare providers originated from Putian, Fujian province. That’s according to a list compiled by DXY.cn, a Chinese online community for healthcare professionals. Putian hospitals expanded across China quickly over the years with little government oversight until the death of a college student. In 2016, 21-year-old Wei Zexi died of cancer after receiving dubious treatment from a Putian hospital. The incident also provoked a public outcry over China’s largest search engine Baidu, which counted Putian hospitals as a major online advertiser.

NIH study links cell phone radiation to cancer in male rats

 New studies from the National Institutes of Health — specifically the National Toxicology Program — find that cell phone radiation is potentially linked with certain forms of cancer, but they’re far from conclusive. The results are complex and the studies have yet to be peer reviewed, but some of the findings are clearly important enough to warrant public discussion. Read More

Mendel.ai nabs $2 million to match cancer patients with the latest clinical trials

 Dr. Karim Galil was tired of losing patients to cancer. He was tired of messy medical records. And he was tired of trying to stay on top of all the clinical trials touting one solution or another. Losing patience and patients, Galil decided to create an organized and artificially intelligent system to match those under his care with the best diagnostic and treatment methods available. Read More