Emerging from stealth, Octant is bringing the tools of synthetic biology to large scale drug discovery

Octant, a company backed by Andreessen Horowitz just now unveiling itself publicly to the world, is using the tools of synthetic biology to buck the latest trends in drug discovery.

As the pharmaceuticals industry turns its attention to precision medicine — the search for ever more tailored treatments for specific diseases using genetic engineering — Octant is using the same technologies to engage in drug discovery and diagnostics on a mass scale.

The company’s technology genetically engineers DNA to act as an identifier for the most common drug receptors inside the human genome. Basically, it’s creating QR codes that can flag and identify how different protein receptors in cells respond to chemicals. These are the biological sensors which help control everything from immune responses to the senses of sight and smell, the firing of neurons; even the release of hormones and communications between cells in the body are regulated.

“Our discovery platform was designed to map and measure the interconnected relationships between chemicals, multiple drug receptor pathways and diseases, enabling us to engineer multi-targeted drugs in a more rational way, across a wide spectrum of targets,” said Sri Kosuri, Octant’s co-founder and chief executive officer, in a statement.

Octant’s work is based on a technology first developed at the University of California Los Angeles by Kosuri and a team of researchers, which slashed the cost of making genetic sequences to $2 per gene from $50 to $100 per gene.

“Our method gives any lab that wants the power to build its own DNA sequences,” Kosuri said in a 2018 statement. “This is the first time that, without a million dollars, an average lab can make 10,000 genes from scratch.”

Joining Kosuri in launching Octant is Ramsey Homsany, a longtime friend of Kosuri’s, and a former executive at Google and Dropbox . Homsany happened to have a background in molecular biology from school, and when Kosuri would talk about the implications of the technology he developed, the two men knew they needed to for a company.

“We use these new tools to know which bar code is going with which construct or genetic variant or pathway that we’re working with [and] all of that fits into a single well,” said Kosuri. “What you can do on top of that is small molecule screening… we can do that with thousands of different wells at a time. So we can build these maps between chemicals and targets and pathways that are essential to drug development.”

Before coming to UCLA, Kosuri had a long history with companies developing products based on synthetic biology on both the coasts. Through some initial work that he’d done in the early days of the biofuel boom in 2007, Kosuri was connected with Flagship Ventures, and the imminent Harvard-based synthetic biologist George Church . He also served as a scientific advisor to Gen9, a company acquired by the multi-billion dollar synthetic biology powerhouse, Ginkgo Bioworks.

“Some of the most valuable drugs in history work on complex sets of drug targets, which is why Octant’s focus on polypharmacology is so compelling,” said Jason Kelly, the co-founder and CEO of Gingko Bioworks, and a member of the Octant board, in a statement. “Octant is engineering a lot of luck and cost out of the drug discovery equation with its novel platform and unique big data biology insights, which will drive the company’s internal development programs as well as potential partnerships.”

The new technology arrives at a unique moment in the industry where pharmaceutical companies are moving to target treatments for diseases that are tied to specific mutations, rather than look at treatments for more common disease problems, said Homsany.

“People are dropping common disease problems,” he said. “The biggest players are dropping these cases and it seems like that just didn’t make sense to us. So we thought about how would a company take these new technologies and apply them in a way that could solve some of this.”

One reason for the industry’s turn away from the big diseases that affect large swaths of the population is that new therapies are emerging to treat these conditions which don’t rely on drugs. While they wouldn’t get into specifics, Octant co-founders are pursuing treatments for what Kosuri said were conditions “in the metabolic space” and in the “neuropsychiatric space”.

Helping them pursue those targets, since Octant is very much a drug development company, is $20 million in financing from investors led by Andreessen Horowitz .

“Drug discovery remains a process of trial and error. Using its deep expertise in synthetic biology, the Octant team has engineered human cells that provide real-time, precise and complete readouts of the complex interactions and effects that drug molecules have within living cells,” said Jorge Conde, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, and member of the Octant board of directors. “By querying biology at this unprecedented scale, Octant has the potential to systematically create exhaustive maps of drug targets and corresponding, novel treatments for our most intractable diseases.”

CRV’s Saar Gur wants to invest in a new wave of games built for VR, Twitch and Zoom

Saar Gur is adept at identifying the next big consumer trends earlier than most: The San Francisco-based general partner at CRV has led investments into leading consumer internet companies like Niantic, DoorDash, Bird, Dropbox, Patreon, Kapwing and ClassPass.

His own experience stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic spurred his interest in three new investment themes focused on the next generation of games: those built for VR, those built on top of Twitch and those built for video chat environments as a socializing tool.

TechCrunch: We’ve been in a “VR winter,” as it’s been called in the industry, following the 2014-2017 wave of VC funding into VR drying up as the market failed to gain massive consumer adoption. You think VR could soon be hot again. Why?

Saar Gur: If you track revenues of third-party games on Oculus, the numbers are getting interesting. And we think the Quest is not quite the Xbox moment for Facebook, but the device and market response to the Quest have been great. So we are more engaged in looking at VR gaming startups than ever before.

What do you mean by “the Xbox moment,” and what will that look like for VR? Facebook hasn’t been able to keep up with demand for Oculus Quest headsets, and most VR headsets seem to have sold out during this pandemic as people seek entertainment at home. This seems like progress. When will we cross the threshold?

Equity Monday: Intel covets Moovit, two early stage rounds, and Uber’s earnings

Good morning and welcome back to TechCrunch’s Equity Monday, a jumpstart for your week.

Equity had a busy last few days, so to help you catch up: Friday’s episode was a lot of fun (Duolingo, Figma, OMERS, and aquafaba), and we also dropped an Equity Shot on Saturday, digging into the first major technology earnings week.

But this morning we were busy digging through what’s happened over the last few days, and what’s to come. Here’s the rundown:

We wrapped asking that’s going to come for companies that were still speculative businesses before the slowdown. They’re going to vaporize, right?

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 AM PT and Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Tech for good during COVID-19: Sky-high gifts, extra help, and chips

When Roger Lee, the co-founder of Human Interest, heard that San Francisco imposed shelter-in-place orders, he started blogging about layoff news and posting crowdsourced lists of employees who were laid off. His goal was to increase awareness about layoffs and give recruiters a place to search for candidates.

However, one week and 40 startup layoffs later, Lee saw his blog was not going to be able to keep up with the massive number of cuts happening across the country. So, Layoffs.fyi tracker was born and currently receives tens of thousands of visitors every day.

As for how he’s balancing the tracker and Human Interest? Lee noted that he has transitioned to work at the company from a board-level capacity.

Lee’s work is one example of many inspiring initiatives we’re going to showcase this week. Let’s get into the list.

  1. Plan your future adventures. A number of sites have popped up to encourage people to buy gift cards and support their local restaurants. But what about their local tourism industries? Adam Faris, a student at the University of Oregon, launched a coronavirus initiative with a team of folks to support businesses in the action sports and adventure experience space. Faris has aggregated a number of businesses offering discounts on skiing, surfing, whitewater rafting and more to encourage people to support small businesses.
  2. Extra help for developers. YouTeam, a Y Combinator-backed marketplace for building remote development teams, is launching a volunteer developers group. Any startups working on COVID-19-related issues can turn to the group to find technical support to aid them, and apply for free development hours of front-end, back-end or UX support. 
  3. Tiny steps, big impact. Tiny Organics, a child nutrition company, is pledging $10,000 annually to Partnership for Healthier America, which works to make sure kids have access to health food. Tiny Organics also created a special edition plant-based meal, Michelle My Broccoli Belle, and will donate 100% of the proceeds to the Food Bank for New York City. 
  4. Help from above. Skydio is donating dozens of self-flying drones to first responders across the country, as part of its Emergency Response program. The drones do not have speakers and will not be used as a communication mechanism, but instead as a way for fire and police units to see potential issues close up. Skydio will provide training and support at no cost. Additionally, the company is teaming up with Frontline Support, a nonprofit, to source and deliver more than a million units of PPE equipment to the University of Washington Hospital System through its logistical and supply chain systems. 
  5. A safe space. Equal space (=SPACE), co-working space for multicultural, LGBTQ, and women-owned startups, has opened up its doors virtually. =Space is offering resources online for freelancers and small business owners that includes training, workshops, productivity sessions, and wellness talks all free of charge.
  6. Aid for healthcare workers. Work & Co partnered with employees at Adobe, Dropbox, and a number of medical students to create a tool to connect healthcare workers with access to grocery delivery, discounted childcare, and free mental health services. The tool was made with input from doctors, nurses, and medical school faculty to help workers meet their basic needs, beyond PPE. It is currently available in New York.
  7. Bandcamp waives fees. Bandcamp, a music company that lets users directly support artists, announced that it will be waiving fees for artists for a number of select days. Last time the platform waived fees, sales for music and merchandise pulled in $4.3 million for artists. It’s a refreshing way to support artists in a world where concerts are no longer a reality. Read more here
  8. A pro bono portal. The American Bar Association and a justice tech company, Paladin, teamed up to create a portal to connect those impacted by COVID-19 to lawyers working pro bono. LegalZoom and Clio are also connected to the project. Read more here.
  9. Hiring help. Binc, a recruitment company that works with companies like Tiktok, Stripe, Nest, Groupon, and more, has launched a free program to help tech workers find jobs. The company is placing employees in engineering, product, design, market, and recruitment professionals in jobs for no charge until the end of the month.
  10.  Chipping in for COVID. Morning Brew is holding an online poker tournament-turned-fundraiser to raise money for Frontline Foods, which supports restaurants and feeds frontline workers. A donation of $100 is required to play.

SaaS earnings bump Dropbox, Box and Sprout Social

A quick hit as we have a podcast to record, but a few public companies in the broader SaaS market reported earnings in the past week. Their results are worth unpacking as they paint a good picture of what the markets are hunting for in modern software companies.

Of course, we’re covering the firms’ share-price movements in the context of an epic selloff stemming from global conditions that are already impacting earnings.

But, hey, not all the news out there is bad. In fact, for our three companies, public investors are waving green flags. So let’s take a peek regarding why Dropbox, Box and Sprout Social — one recent IPO and two slightly-out-of-favor SaaS shops — each shot higher after reporting their Q4-era results.

Earnings, results

Let’s proceed in alphabetical order, putting Box at the top of our list. We’ll then work through Dropbox and Sprout Social.

Box’s calendar Q4-era earnings report (the company’s Fiscal 2020 Q4) beat investor expectations three times. It reported more revenue than anticipated, $183.6 million over expectations of $181.6 million; a slimmer loss than predicted, $0.07 per-share in adjusted profit against a projected $0.04; and the storage-grounded, corporate productivity company’s quarterly forecast of $183.0 million to $184.0 million was a few million ahead of expectations ($181.8 million, per Yahoo Finance).

Why Dropbox shares are soaring after it reported earnings

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

This morning we’re digging into Dropbox’s earnings report (Q4 2019), and why its recent financial performance and plans for 2020 are making the storage and productivity-focused SaaS player shares soar.

While the broader SaaS category has seen huge valuation gains in recent quarters, Dropbox has not. Along with Box, the two file-sharing focused companies were left behind as their broader unicorn cohort’s value surged. Why? Slowing growth, mostly. But with Dropbox shares up 13% pre-market to more than $21 this morning — its original IPO price — perhaps things are changing for one of the two firms.

To figure out what happened, we’ll start by unearthing what Dropbox managed to pull off in Q4 and compare its projections with market expectations. At the end, we’ll translate what we’ve learned from public SaaS companies for their private, startup brethren. As always, when we look at public companies, we’re hunting for market signals that will impact startup fundraising and valuations.

6 strategic stages of seed fundraising in 2020

Seed fundraising is rarely easy, but it certainly used to be a lot less complicated than it is today. In a simpler world, a seed investor (or maybe two) would lead a round, which meant that they would write the terms of the deal in a term sheet and then pass that document to their friends to flesh out the funds and eventually close the round. That universe of investors was small and (unfortunately) often cliquish, but everyone sort of knew each other and founders always knew at least who to start with in these early fundraises.

That world is long since gone, particularly at the seed stage. Now there are thousands of people who write checks into the earliest startup venture rounds, making it increasingly challenging for founders to find the right investors. “Pre-seed,” “seed,” “post-seed,” “seed extension,” “pre-Series A” and more terms get batted about, none of which are all that specific about what kinds of startups these investors actually invest in.

Worse, obvious metrics in the past that helped stack-rank investors — like size of potential check — have come to matter far less. In their place are more nuanced metrics like the ability to accelerate a deal to its closing. Today, your greatest lead investor may be the one who ends up writing the smallest check.

Given how much the landscape has changed, I wanted to do two things for founders thinking through a seed fundraise. First, I want to talk about how to strategize around a seed fundraise today, given the radical changes in the market over the past few years. Second, I want to talk about a couple of the archetypes of startup stages you see in the market today and discuss how to handle each of them.

This article focuses on “conventional” seed fundraising and doesn’t get into a bunch of alternative models of VC that I intend to explore in the coming weeks. If you thought traditional seed investing is complicated, wait until you see what the alternatives look like. The upshot, though, is that founders with the right strategy have more choices than ever, and, ultimately, that means there are more efficient ways to use capital to get the desired outcome for your startup.

Thinking through a seed fundraise strategy

Let’s get some preliminaries out of the way. This discussion assumes that you are a startup, looking to fundraise a seed round of some kind (i.e. you’re not looking to bootstrap your company) and that you are looking to close some sort of conventional venture capital round (i.e. not debt, but equity).

The problem with most seed fundraising advice is that it isn’t tailored to the specific stage of the startup under discussion. As I see it, there are now roughly six stages for startups before they reach scale. Those stages are:

Better know a CSO: Dropbox head of security Justin Berman

Justin Berman has one of the most important jobs at Dropbox .

As head of security, he oversees the company’s cybersecurity strategy, its defenses and works daily to keep its more than 600 million users’ data private and secure.

No pressure, then.

Berman joined the file storage and workspace giant a year ago during a period of transition for the company. During its early years, Dropbox was hit by a data breach that saw more than 60 million user passwords stolen during a time where tech giants were entrenched in a “move fast and break things” culture. But things have changed, particularly at Dropbox, which made good on its promise to improve the company’s security and also went far beyond what any Silicon Valley company had done before to better protect security researchers.

In this series, we’ll look at the role of the CSO — the chief security officer — at some of the biggest companies in tech to better understand the role, what it means to keep an organization secure without hindering growth and what advice startups can learn from some of the most experienced security professionals in the industry.

We start with Berman, who discussed in a recent interview what drew him to the company, what it means to be a security chief and what other companies can learn from Dropbox’s groundbreaking security policies

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: You’ve been at Dropbox since June. Before this you were at Zenefits, Flatiron Health and Bridgewater. What brought you to Dropbox?

Justin Berman: First and foremost, I think the people here are amazing. And I think the problems I get to solve here are not the ones that a lot of security leaders find themselves solving. Because the company has had a historical commitment to security, privacy, and trust and risk, I’m not coming in and having to boot the culture of security from the ground up. That culture already exists. And the question we ask ourselves is how do we use that culture to do the right level of things as opposed to just doing as much as possible where you might slow down the business?

Moving storage in-house helped Dropbox thrive

Back in 2013, Dropbox was scaling fast.

The company had grown quickly by taking advantage of cloud infrastructure from Amazon Web Services (AWS), but when you grow rapidly, infrastructure costs can skyrocket, especially when approaching the scale Dropbox was at the time. The company decided to build its own storage system and network — a move that turned out to be a wise decision.

In a time when going from on-prem to cloud and closing private data centers was typical, Dropbox took a big chance by going the other way. The company still uses AWS for certain services, regional requirements and bursting workloads, but ultimately when it came to the company’s core storage business, it wanted to control its own destiny.

Storage is at the heart of Dropbox’s service, leaving it with scale issues like few other companies, even in an age of massive data storage. With 600 million users and 400,000 teams currently storing more than 3 exabytes of data (and growing) if it hadn’t taken this step, the company might have been squeezed by its growing cloud bills.

Controlling infrastructure helped control costs, which improved the company’s key business metrics. A look at historical performance data tells a story about the impact that taking control of storage costs had on Dropbox.

The numbers

In March of 2016, Dropbox announced that it was “storing and serving” more than 90% of user data on its own infrastructure for the first time, completing a 3-year journey to get to this point. To understand what impact the decision had on the company’s financial performance, you have to examine the numbers from 2016 forward.

There is good financial data from Dropbox going back to the first quarter of 2016 thanks to its IPO filing, but not before. So, the view into the impact of bringing storage in-house begins after the project was initially mostly completed. By examining the company’s 2016 and 2017 financial results, it’s clear that Dropbox’s revenue quality increased dramatically. Even better for the company, its revenue quality improved as its aggregate revenue grew.

In the shadow of Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle startups are having a moment

Venture capital investment exploded across a number of geographies in 2019 despite the constant threat of an economic downturn.

San Francisco, of course, remains the startup epicenter of the world, shutting out all other geographies when it comes to capital invested. Still, other regions continue to grow, raking in more capital this year than ever.

In Utah, a new hotbed for startups, companies like Weave, Divvy and MX Technology raised a collective $370 million from private market investors. In the Northeast, New York City experienced record-breaking deal volume with median deal sizes climbing steadily. Boston is closing out the decade with at least 10 deals larger than $100 million announced this year alone. And in the lovely Pacific Northwest, home to tech heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle is experiencing an uptick in VC interest in what could be a sign the town is finally reaching its full potential.

Seattle startups raised a total of $3.5 billion in VC funding across roughly 375 deals this year, according to data collected by PitchBook. That’s up from $3 billion in 2018 across 346 deals and a meager $1.7 billion in 2017 across 348 deals. Much of Seattle’s recent growth can be attributed to a few fast-growing businesses.

Convoy, the digital freight network that connects truckers with shippers, closed a $400 million round last month bringing its valuation to $2.75 billion. The deal was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the largest venture round for a Seattle-based company in a decade, PitchBook claims. And it pushed Convoy to the top of the list of the most valuable companies in the city, surpassing OfferUp, which raised a sizable Series D in 2018 at a $1.4 billion valuation.

Convoy has managed to attract a slew of high-profile investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and even U2’s Bono and the Edge. Since it was founded in 2015, the business has raised a total of more than $668 million.

Remitly, another Seattle-headquartered business, has helped bolster Seattle’s startup ecosystem. The fintech company focused on international money transfer raised a $135 million Series E led by Generation Investment Management, and $85 million in debt from Barclays, Bridge Bank, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank earlier this year. Owl Rock Capital, Princeville Global,  Prudential Financial, Schroder & Co Bank AG and Top Tier Capital Partners, and previous investors DN Capital, Naspers’ PayU and Stripes Group also participated in the equity round, which valued Remitly at nearly $1 billion.

Up-and-coming startups, including co-working space provider The Riveter, real estate business Modus and same-day delivery service Dolly, have recently attracted investment too.

A number of other factors have contributed to Seattle’s long-awaited rise in venture activity. Top-performing companies like Stripe, Airbnb and Dropbox have established engineering offices in Seattle, as has Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Disney and many others. This, of course, has attracted copious engineers, a key ingredient to building a successful tech hub. Plus, the pipeline of engineers provided by the nearby University of Washington (shout-out to my alma mater) means there’s no shortage of brainiacs.

There’s long been plenty of smart people in Seattle, mostly working at Microsoft and Amazon, however. The issue has been a shortage of entrepreneurs, or those willing to exit a well-paying gig in favor of a risky venture. Fortunately for Seattle venture capitalists, new efforts have been made to entice corporate workers to the startup universe. Pioneer Square Labs, which I profiled earlier this year, is a prime example of this movement. On a mission to champion Seattle’s unique entrepreneurial DNA, Pioneer Square Labs cropped up in 2015 to create, launch and fund technology companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest.

Boundless CEO Xiao Wang at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017

Operating under the startup studio model, PSL’s team of former founders and venture capitalists, including Rover and Mighty AI founder Greg Gottesman, collaborate to craft and incubate startup ideas, then recruit a founding CEO from their network of entrepreneurs to lead the business. Seattle is home to two of the most valuable businesses in the world, but it has not created as many founders as anticipated. PSL hopes that by removing some of the risk, it can encourage prospective founders, like Boundless CEO Xiao Wang, a former senior product manager at Amazon, to build.

“The studio model lends itself really well to people who are 99% there, thinking ‘damn, I want to start a company,’ ” PSL co-founder Ben Gilbert said in March. “These are people that are incredible entrepreneurs but if not for the studio as a catalyst, they may not have [left].”

Boundless is one of several successful PSL spin-outs. The business, which helps families navigate the convoluted green card process, raised a $7.8 million Series A led by Foundry Group earlier this year, with participation from existing investors Trilogy Equity Partners, PSL, Two Sigma Ventures and Founders’ Co-Op.

Years-old institutional funds like Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group have done their part to bolster the Seattle startup community too. Madrona raised a $100 million Acceleration Fund earlier this year, and although it plans to look beyond its backyard for its newest deals, the firm continues to be one of the largest supporters of Pacific Northwest upstarts. Founded in 1995, Madrona’s portfolio includes Amazon, Mighty AI, UiPath, Branch and more.

Voyager Capital, another Seattle-based VC, also raised another $100 million this year to invest in the PNW. Maveron, a venture capital fund co-founded by Starbucks mastermind Howard Schultz, closed on another $180 million to invest in early-stage consumer startups in May. And new efforts like Flying Fish Partners have been busy deploying capital to promising local companies.

There’s a lot more to say about all this. Like the growing role of deep-pocketed angel investors in Seattle have in expanding the startup ecosystem, or the non-local investors, like Silicon Valley’s best, who’ve funneled cash into Seattle’s talent. In short, Seattle deal activity is finally climbing thanks to top talent, new accelerator models and several refueled venture funds. Now we wait to see how the Seattle startup community leverages this growth period and what startups emerge on top.