Foresite Capital raises $969 million fund to invest in healthcare startups across all stages of growth

Health and life science specialist investment firm Foresite Capital has raised a new fund, its fifth to date, totaling $969 million in commitments from LPs. This is the firm’s largest fund to date and was oversubscribed relative to its original target according to fund CEO and founder Dr. Jim Tananbaum, who told me that while the fundraising process started out slow in the early months of the pandemic, it gained steam quickly starting around last fall and ultimately exceeded expectations.

This latest fund actually makes up two separate investment vehicles, Foresite Capital Fund V, and Foresite Capital Opportunity Fund V, but Tananbaum says that the money will be used to fuel investments in line with its existing approach, which includes companies ranging from early to late stage, and everything in between. Foresite’s approach is designed to help it be uniquely positioned to shepherd companies from founding (they also have a company-building incubator) all the way to public market exit — and even beyond. Tananbaum said that they’re also very interested in coming in later to startups they missed out on at earlier stages of their growth, however.

Image Credits: Foresite Capital

“We can also come into a later situation that’s competitive with a number of hedge funds, and bring something unique to the table, because we have all these value-added resources that we used to start companies,” Tananbaum said. “So we have a competitive advantage for later-stage deals, and we have a competitive advantage for early-stage deals, by virtue of being able to function at a high level in the capital markets.”

Foresite’s other advantage, according to Tananbaum, is that it has long focused on the intersection of traditional tech business mechanics and biotech. That approach has especially paid off in recent years, he says, since the gap between the two continues to narrow.

“We’ve just had this enormous belief that technology, and tools and data science, machine learning, biotechnology, biology, and genetics — they are going to come together,” he told me. “There hasn’t been an organization out there that really speaks both languages well for entrepreneurs and knows how to bring that diverse set of people together. So that’s what we specialized in and we have a lot of resources and a lot of cross-lingual resources, so that techies that can talk to biotechies, and biotechies can talk to techies.”

Foresite extended this approach to company formation with the creation of Foresite Labs, an incubation platform that it spun up in October 2019 to leverage this experience at the earliest possible stage of startup founding. It’s run by Dr. Vik Bajaj, who was previously co-founder and chief science officer of Alphabet’s Verily health sciences enterprise.

“What’s going on, [over the] last couple decades, is that the innovation cycles are getting faster and faster,” Tananbaum said. “So at some point the people that are having the really big wins on the public side are saying, ‘Well, these really big wins are being driven by innovation and by quality science, so let’s go a little bit more upstream on the quality science.'”

That has combined with shorter and shorter healthcare product development cycles, he added, aided by general improvements in technology. Tananbaum pointed out that when he began Foresite in 2011, the time horizons for returns on healthcare investments were significantly longer and at the outside edge of the tolerances of venture economics. Now, however, they’re much closer to those found in the general tech startup ecosystem, even in the case of fundamental scientific breakthroughs.

CAMBRIDGE — DECEMBER 1: Stephanie Chandler, Relay Therapeutics office manager, demonstrates how she and her fellow co-workers at the company administer their own COVID tests inside the COVID testing room at Relay Therapeutics in Cambridge, MA on Dec. 1, 2021. The cancer treatment development company converted its coat room into a room where employees get tested once a week. All 100+employees have been back in the office as a result of regular testing. Relay is a Foresite portfolio company. Image Credits: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

“Basically, you’re seeing people now really look at biotech in general in the same kind of way that you would look at a tech company,” he said. “There are these tech metrics that now also apply in biotech, about adoption velocity [and] other things that may not exactly equate to immediate revenue but give you all the core material that usually works over time.”

Overall, Foresite’s investment thesis focuses on funding companies in three areas — therapeutics at the clinical stage, infrastructure focused on automation and data generation, and what Tananbaum calls “individualized care.” All three are part of a continuum in the tech-enabled healthcare end state that he envisions, ultimately resulting in “a world where we’re able to, at the individual level, help someone understand what their predispositions are to disease development.” That, Tananbaum suggests, will result in a transformation of this kind of targeted care into an everyday consumer experience — in the same way tech in general has taken previously specialist functions and abilities, and made them generally available to the public at large.

Eat this, exercise now; new personalized software predicts and helps prevents blood sugar spikes

Not everyone has Type 2 diabetes, the disease that causes chronically high blood sugar levels, but many do. Around 9% of Americans are afflicted, and another 30% are at risk of developing it.

Enter software by January AI, a four-year-old, subscription-based startup that in November began providing personalized nutritional and activity-related suggestions to its customers based on a combination of food-related data the company has quietly amassed over three years, and each person’s unique profile, which is gleaned over that individuals’s first four days of using the software.

Why the need for personalization? Because believe it or not, people can react very differently to every single food, from rice to salad dressing.

The tech may sound mundane but it’s eye-opening and potentially live-saving, promises cofounder and CEO Nosheen Hashemi and her cofounder, Michael Snyder, a genetics professor at Stanford who has focused on diabetes and pre-diabetes for years.

Investors like the idea, too. Felicis Ventures just led a $21 million Series A investment in the company, joined by HAND Capital and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff. (Earlier investors include Jerry Yang’s Ame Cloud Ventures, SignalFire, YouTube cofounder Steve Chen, and Sunshine cofounder Marissa Mayer, among others.) Says Felicis founder Aydin Senkut, “While other companies have made headway in understanding biometric sensor data—from heart rate and glucose monitors, for example—January AI has made progress in analyzing and predicting the effects of food consumption itself [which is] key to addressing chronic disease.”

To learn more, we talked this afternoon with Hashemi and Snyder. Below is part of our chat, edited for length and clarity.

TC: What have you built?

NH: We’ve built a multiomic platform where we take data from different sources and predict people’s glycemic response, allowing them to consider their choices before they make them. We pull in data from heart rate monitors and continuous glucose monitors and a 1,000-person clinical study and an atlas of 16 million foods for which, using machine learning, we have derived nutritional values and created nutritional labeling [that didn’t exist previously].

[The idea is to] predict for [customers] what their glycemic response is going to be to any food in our database after just four days of training. They don’t actually have to eat the food to know whether they should eat it or not; our product tells them what their response is going to be.

TC: So glucose monitoring existed previously, but this is predictive. Why is this important?

NH: We want to bring the joy back to eating and remove the guilt. We can predict, for example, how long you’d have to walk after eating any food in our database in order to keep your blood sugar at the right level. Knowing what “is” isn’t enough; we want to tell you what to do about it. If you’re thinking about fried chicken and a shake, we can tell you: you’re going to have to walk 46 minutes afterward to maintain a healthy [blood sugar] range. Would you like to do the uptime for that? No? Then maybe [eat the chicken and shake] on a Saturday.

TC: This is subscription software that works with other wearables and that costs $488 for three months.

NH: That’s retail price, but we have an introductory offer of $288.

TC: Are you at all concerned that people will use the product, get a sense of what they could be doing differently, then end their subscription?

NH: No. Pregnancy changes [one’s profile], age changes it. People travel and they aren’t always eating the same things. . .

MS: I’ve been wearing [continuous glucose monitoring] wearables for seven years and I still learn stuff. You suddenly realize that every time you eat white rice, you spike through the roof, for example. That’s true for many people. But we are also offering a year-long subscription soon because we do know that people slip sometimes [only to be reminded] later that these boosters are very valuable.

TC: How does it work practically? Say I’m at a restaurant and I’m in the mood for pizza but I don’t know which one to order.

NH: You can compare curve over curve to see which is healthier. You can see how much you’ll have to walk [depending on the toppings].

TC: Do I need to speak all of these toppings into my smart phone?

NH: January scans barcodes, it also understands photos. It also has manual entry, and it takes voice [commands].

TC: Are you doing anything else with this massive food database that you’ve aggregated and that you’re enriching with your own data? 

NH: We will definitely not sell personal information.

TC: Not even aggregated data? Because it does sound like a useful database . . .

MS: We’re not 23andMe; that’s really not the goal.

TC: You mentioned that rice can cause someone’s blood sugar to soar, which is surprising. What are some of the things that might surprise people about what your software can show them? 

NH: The way people’s glycemic response is so different, not just between by Connie and Mike, but also for Connie and Connie. If you eat nine days in a row, your glycemic response could be different each of those nine days because of how much you slept or how much thinking you did the day before or how much fiber was in your body and whether you ate before bedtime.

Activity before eating and activity after eating is important. Fiber is important. It’s the most under overlooked intervention in the American diet. Our ancestral diets featured 150 grams of fiber a day; the average American diet today includes 15 grams of fiber. A lot of health issues can be traced to a lack of fiber.

TC: It seems like coaching would be helpful in concert with your app. Is there a coaching component?

NH: We don’t offer a coaching component today, but we’re in talks with several coaching solutions as we speak, to be the AI partner to them.

TC: Who else are you partnering with? Healthcare companies? Employers that can offer this as a benefit?

NH: We are selling to direct to consumers, but we’ve already had a pharma customer for two years. Pharma companies are very interested in working with us because we are able to use lifestyle as a biomarker. We essentially give them [anonymized] visibility into someone’s lifestyle for a period of two weeks or however long they want to run the program for so they can gain insights as to whether the therapeutic is working because of the person’s lifestyle or in spite of a person’s lifestyle. Pharma companies are very interested in working with us because they can potentially get answers in a trial phase faster and even reduce the number of subjects they need.

So we’re excited about pharma. We are also very interested in working with employers, with coaching solutions, and ultimately, with payers [like insurance companies].

Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine just got a lot easier to transport and distribute

The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech now has less stringent and extreme transportation requirements than it debuted with. Originally, the mRNA-based vaccine had to be maintained at ultra-low temperatures throughout the transportation chain in order to remain viable – between -76°F and -112°F. New stability data collected by Pfizer and BioNTech, which has been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for review, allow it to be stored at temps between 5°F and -13°F – ranges available in standard medical freezers found in most clinics and care facilities.

The vaccine should remain stable for up to two weeks at that temperature, which vastly improves the flexibility of its options for transportation, and last-mile storage in preparation for administration to patients. To date, the vaccine has relied largely on existing “cold-chain” infrastructure to be in place in order for it to be able to reach the areas where it’s being used to inoculate patients. That limitation hasn’t been in place for Moderna’s vaccine, which is stable at even higher, standard refrigerator temperatures for up to a month.

This development is just one example of how work continues on the vaccines that are already being deployed under emergency approvals by health regulators across the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Pfizer and BioNTech say they’re working on bringing those storage temp requirements down even further, so they could potentially approach the standard set by the Moderna jab.

Taken together with another fresh development, study results from Israeli researchers that found just one shot of the ordinarily two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could be as high as 85 percent effective on its own, this is a major development for global inoculation programs. The new requirements open up participation to a whole host of potential new players in supporting delivery and distribution – including ride-hailing and on-demand delivery players with large networks like Amazon, which has offered the President Biden’s administration its support, and Uber, which is already teamed up with Moderna on vaccine education programs.

This also opens the door for participation from a range of startups and smaller companies in both the logistics and the care delivery space that don’t have the scale or the specialized equipment to be able to offer extreme ‘cold-chain’ storage. Technical barriers have been a blocker for some who have been looking for ways to assist, but lacked the necessary hardware and expertise to do so effectively.

Toronto’s UHN launches a study to see if Apple Watch can spot worsening heart failure

A new study underway at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN), a group of working research hospitals in the city, could shift our approach to treatment in an area of growing concern in human health. The study, led by Dr. Heather Ross, will investigate whether the Apple Watch can provide early warnings about potentially worsening health for patients following incidents of heart failure.

The study, which is aiming to eventually span around 200 patients, and which already has a number of participants enrolled spanning ages from 25 to 90, and various demographics, will use the Apple Watch Series 6 and its onboard sensors to monitor signals including heart rate, blood oxygen, general activity levels, overall performance during a six minute walk test and more. Researchers led by Ross will compare this data to measurements taken from the more formal clinical tests currently used by physicians to monitor the recovery of heart failure patients during routine, periodic check-ups.

The hope is that Ross and her team will be able to identify correlations between signs they’re seeing from the Apple Watch data, and the information gathered from the proven medical diagnostic and monitoring equipment. If they can verify that the Apple Watch accurately reflects what’s happening with a heart failure patient’s health, it has tremendous potential for treatment and care.

“In the US, there are about six-and-a-half million adults with heart failure,” Ross told me in an interview. “About one in five people in North America over the age of 40 will develop heart failure. And the average life expectancy [following heart failure] is still measured at around 2.1 years, at a tremendous impact to quality of life.”

The stats point to heart failure as a “growing epidemic,” says Ross, at a cost of some “$30 billion a year at present in the U.S.” to the healthcare system. A significant portion of that cost can come from the care required when conditions worsen due to preventable causes – ones that can be avoided by changes in patient behavior, if only implemented at the right time. Ross told me that currently, the paradigm of care for heat failure patients is “episodic” – meaning it happens in three- or six-month intervals, when patients go into a physician’s office or clinic for a bevy of tests using expensive equipment that must be monitored by a trained professional, like a nurse practitioner.

“If you think about the paradigm to a certain degree, we’ve kind of got it backwards,” Ross said. “So in our thinking, the idea really is how do we provide a continuous style monitoring of patients in a relatively unobtrusive way that will allow us to detect a change in a patient status before they end up actually coming into hospital. So this is where the opportunity with Apple is tremendous.”

Ross said that current estimates suggest nearly 50% of hospitalizations could be avoided altogether through steps taken by patients including better self-care, like adhering to prescribed medicinal regimens, accurate symptom monitoring, monitoring dietary intake and more. Apple Vice President of Health Dr. Sumbul Desai echoed the sentiment that proactivity is one of the key ingredients to better standards of care, and better long-term outcomes.

“A lot of health, in the world of medicine, has been focused on reactive responses to situations,” she said in an interview. “The idea to get a little more proactive in the way we think about our own health is really empowering and we’re really excited about where that could take us. We think starting with these studies to really ground us in the science is critical but, really, the potential for it is something that we look forward to tackling.”

Desai, has led Apple’s Health initiatives for just under four years, and also spent much of her career prior to that at Stanford (where she remains an associate professor) working on both the academic and clinical side. She knows first-hand the value of continuous care, and said that this study is representative of the potential the company sees in Apple Watch’s role in the daily health of individuals.

“The ability to have that snapshot of an individual as they’re living their everyday life is extremely useful,” she said. “As a physician, part of your conversation is ‘tell me what’s going on when you’re not in the clinic.’ To be able to have some of that data at your fingertips and have that part of your conversation really enhances your engagement with your patients as well. We believe that can provide insight in ways that has not been done before and we’re really excited to see what more we’re learning in this specific realm but we already hearing from both users and physicians how valuable that is.”

Both Ross and Desai highlighted the value of Apple Watch as a consumer-friendly device that’s easy to set up and learn, and that serves a number of different purposes beyond health and fitness, as being key ingredients to its potential in a continuous care paradigm.

“We really believe that people should be able to play a more active role in managing their well-being and Apple Watch in particular, we find to be — and are really proud of — a powerful health and wellness tool because the same device that you can connect with loved ones and check messages also supports safety, motivates you to stay healthy by moving more and provides important information on your overall wellness,” Desai said.

“This is a powerful health care tool bundled into a device that people just love for all the reasons Sumbul has said,” Ross added. “But this is a powerful diagnostic tool, too. So it is that consumer platform that I think will make this potentially an unstoppable tool, if we can evaluate it properly, which we’re doing in this partnership.”

The study, which is targeting 200 participants as mentioned, and enrolling more every day, will span three months of active monitoring, followed by a two-year follow up to investigate the data collected relative to patient outcomes. All data collected is stored in a fully encrypted form (Ross pointed to Apple’s privacy track record as another benefit of having it as a partner) and anyone taking part can opt-out at any point during the course of the research.

Even once the results are in, it’ll just be the first step in a larger process of validation, but Ross said that the hope is to ultimately “to improve access and equitable care,” by changing the fundamental approach to how we think about heart failure and treatment.

Jamaica’s immigration website exposed thousands of travelers’ data

A security lapse by a Jamaican government contractor has exposed immigration records and COVID-19 test results for hundreds of thousands of travelers who visited the island over the past year.

The Jamaican government contracted Amber Group to build the JamCOVID19 website and app, which the government uses to publish daily coronavirus figures and allows residents to self-report their symptoms. The contractor also built the website to pre-approve travel applications to visit the island during the pandemic, a process that requires travelers to upload a negative COVID-19 test result before they board their flight if they come from high-risk countries, including the United States.

But a cloud storage server storing those uploaded documents was left unprotected and without a password, and was publicly spilling out files onto the open web.

Many of the victims whose information was found on the exposed server are Americans.

The data is now secure after TechCrunch contacted Amber Group’s chief executive Dushyant Savadia, who did not comment when reached prior to publication.

The storage server, hosted on Amazon Web Services, was set to public. It’s not known for how long the data was unprotected, but contained more than 70,000 negative COVID-19 lab results, over 425,000 immigration documents authorizing travel to the island — which included the traveler’s name, date of birth and passport numbers — and over 250,000 quarantine orders dating back to June 2020, when Jamaica reopened its borders to visitors after the pandemic’s first wave. The server also contained more than 440,000 images of travelers’ signatures.

Two U.S. travelers whose lab results were among the exposed data told TechCrunch that they uploaded their COVID-19 results through the Visit Jamaica website before their travel. Once lab results are processed, travelers receive a travel authorization that they must present before boarding their flight.

Both of these documents, as well as quarantine orders that require visitors to shelter in place and several passports, were on the exposed storage server.

Travelers who are staying outside Jamaica’s so-called “resilient corridor,” a zone that covers a large portion of the island’s population, are told to install the app built by Amber Group that tracks their location and is tracked by the Ministry of Health to ensure visitors stay within the corridor. The app also requires that travelers record short “check-in” videos with a daily code sent by the government, along with their name and any symptoms.

The server exposed more than 1.1 million of those daily updating check-in videos.

An airport information flyer given to travelers arriving in Jamaica. Travelers may be required to install the JamCOVID19 app to allow the government to monitor their location and to require video check-ins. (Image: Jamaican government)

The server also contained dozens of daily timestamped spreadsheets named “PICA,” likely for the Jamaican passport, immigration and citizenship agency, but these were restricted by access permissions. But the permissions on the storage server were set so that anyone had full control of the files inside, such as allowing them to be downloaded or deleted altogether. (TechCrunch did neither, as doing so would be unlawful.)

Stephen Davidson, a spokesperson for the Jamaican Ministry of Health, did not comment when reached, or say if the government planned to inform travelers of the security lapse.

Savadia founded Amber Group in 2015 and soon launched its vehicle-tracking system, Amber Connect.

According to one report, Amber’s Savadia said the company developed JamCOVID19 “within three days” and made it available to the Jamaican government in large part for free. The contractor is billing other countries, including Grenada and the British Virgin Islands, for similar implementations, and is said to be looking for other government customers outside the Caribbean.

Savadia would not say what measures his company put in place to protect the data of paying governments.

Jamaica has recorded at least 19,300 coronavirus cases on the island to date, and more than 370 deaths.


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Notable Health seeks to improve COVID-19 vaccine administration through intelligent automation

Efficient and cost-effective vaccine distribution remains one of the biggest challenges of 2021, so it’s no surprise that startup Notable Health wants to use their automation platform to help. Initially started to address the nearly $250 billion annual administrative costs in healthcare, Notable Health launched in 2017 to use automation to replace time-consuming and repetitive simple tasks in health industry admin. In early January of this year, they announced plans to use that technology as a way to help manage vaccine distribution.

“As a physician, I saw firsthand that with any patient encounter, there are 90 steps or touch points that need to occur,” said Notable Health Medical Director Muthu Alagappan in an interview. “It’s our hypothesis that the vast majority of those points can be automated.”

Notable Health’s core technology is a platform that uses robotic process automation (RPA), natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning to find eligible patients for the COVID-19 vaccine. Combined with data provided by hospital systems’ electronic health records, the platform helps those qualified to receive the vaccine set up appointments and guides them to other relevant educational resources.

“By leveraging intelligent automation to identify, outreach, educate and triage patients, health systems can develop efficient and equitable vaccine distribution workflows,” said Notable Health strategic advisor and Biden Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board Member Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, in a press release.

Making vaccine appointments has been especially difficult for older Americans, many of whom have reportedly struggled with navigating scheduling websites. Alagappan sees that as a design problem. “Technology often gets a bad reputation, because it’s hampered by the many bad technology experiences that are out there,” he said.

Instead, he thinks Notable Health has kept the user in mind through a more simplified approach, asking users only for basic and easy-to-remember information through a text message link. “It’s that emphasis on user-centric design that I think has allowed us to still have really good engagement rates even with older populations,” he said.

While the startup’s platform will likely help hospitals and health systems develop a more efficient approach to vaccinations, its use of RPA and NLP holds promise for future optimization in healthcare. Leaders of similar technology in other industries have already gone on to have multibillion dollar valuations and continue to attract investors’ interest.

Artificial intelligence is expected to grow in healthcare over the next several years, but Alagappan argues that combining that with other, more readily available intelligent technologies is also an important step toward improved care. “When we say intelligent automation, we’re really referring to the marriage of two concepts: artificial intelligence — which is knowing what to do — and robotic process automation — which is knowing how to do it,” he said. That dual approach is what he says allows Notable Health to bypass administrative bottlenecks in healthcare, instructing bots to carry out those tasks in an efficient and adaptable way.

So far, Notable Health has worked with several hospital systems across multiple states in using their platform for vaccine distribution and scheduling, and are now using the platform to reach out to tens of thousands of patients per day.

Wyndly aims to bring allergy drops to the masses

Chronic allergy sufferers know well the daily discomfort of seasonal allergies and environmental allergies. They also likely know about allergy shots — the treatment that requires you to go into an office to get shots on a weekly or monthly basis. But there is a lesser-known treatment, allergy drops, that requires a bit less effort. Wyndly, a startup participating in Y Combinator’s current batch, aims to make allergy drops more accessible to people.

Before the pandemic, Dr. Manan Shah, an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, throat doctor), would have his patients come in for an evaluation and then prescribe them personalized allergy drops to train their immune system to fight off allergy triggers.  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Shah, began treating his patients suffering from allergies via telemedicine. That went well so Dr. Shah and his cousin, Aakash Shah, took their idea to Y Combinator. They showed their idea was working well in Denver, Colorado but wanted help taking it nationwide.

Through Wyndly, Dr. Shah can conduct both allergy testing and treatment via telemedicine. Unlike allergy shots, allergy drops can be taken at home. Wyndly aims to treat environmental allergies, like cats, dogs, dust mites, mold, pollen, trees, grasses and weeds.

“Most people don’t realize there is this other option,” Dr. Shah said. “I think most people think the only option for allergies are shots or taking antihistamines every day. we educate people there is this wonderful therapy and we can make it available to you in the most convenient way.”

Wyndly works by first evaluating a patient’s allergies. Patients can either submit a recent allergy test to Wyndly, or take Wyndly’s at-home finger prick test. Next, Wyndly prepares personalized allergy drops for the patient and sends a vial to the patient’s home. Then, at some point during the day, patients take five drops under the tongue. Dr. Shah said most patients see a decrease in their symptoms after taking these drops daily for six months.

Wyndly costs $99 per month for allergy drop treatment, which could come out to around $594 in total, if a patient takes them for six months. If you become a patient, the allergy test costs $0 but if you don’t become a patient, the test costs $200.

While allergy drops are easy to take, there’s a caveat. Insurance companies typically do not cover the cost of the treatment, while they generally do for allergy shots. But Wyndly says it aims to be the same cost as what someone would pay for insurance-covered allergy shots plus co-pays.

It’s also worth noting that these allergy drops are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. While they are made using the same medications that are FDA-approved for allergy shots, the compounded medication is not itself approved and regulated by the FDA, Dr. Shah said.

Down the road, Wyndly may look to treat food allergies but Shah says there’s not enough data about its safety.

“I just want to see a little more research and for the field to reach a consensus on safety,” Shah said. “We hope to do food in the future if it ends up being proven to be really effective.”

Wyndly is has been in Y Combinator for a little over a month now and has been slowly expanding its offerings. Through partnerships with physicians, Wyndly is able to offer its services in 38 states throughout the country. By the end of 2022, Wyndly hopes to be in all 50 states.

Ember names former Dyson head as consumer CEO, as the startup looks beyond the smart mug

Ember today announced that founder Clay Alexander will transition to Group CEO effective February 16. In his place, the Los Angeles-based smart mug company is bringing on Jim Rowan as Consumer CEO. The executive served as CEO of Dyson from 2017 to 2020, after five years as COO.

It’s a big get for a relatively small company like Ember, which is best known for its smart, heated mugs. Founded in 2012, the hardware startup most recently raised a $20 million Series D in early 2019, bringing its total funding up to just shy of $50 million.

Alexander’s continued role at the company points to additional categories for Ember beyond consumer. “When I founded Ember, I knew there were endless applications for our temperature control technology and with Jim joining our team, we’ll be able to focus on our emerging healthcare vertical and use our technology to help improve and even save lives,” the exec said in a statement.

Courtesy of clever technology and smart design, the company has built a pretty sizable footprint for what might otherwise be a fairly niche product, expanding retail sales to Target, Costco, Best Buy and Starbucks, among others. The startup has done so while maintaining a low headcount of around 100 staffers.

“They have great IP, great design and great innovation, all around precise temperature control,” Rowan said in an interview with TechCrunch. “Obviously that started with the temperature control mugs and flasks, but that IP lends itself to so many other application. For me, that golden thread of being able to use that in myriad of different industries and markets is really, really exciting. One of them, of course, is the cold chain, which has become a lot more important since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a good indication of how you can disrupt and innovate in new markets.

Rowan has previously served as the COO of BlackBerry and as a senior exec at Flextronics. After exiting Dyson, he joined both PCH International and KKR as an advisor. It’s Dyson, however, that provides the most direct analogy for what the executive hoping to do at Ember. At its core, Dyson is a company that moves air. That translates to vacuums, fans, hairdryers and myriad other product categories.

The underlying question is how Ember’s proprietary heating and cooling tech can translate to other fields. On an industrial level, it means, potentially, helping keep foodstuff and medicine at a predetermined temperate while shipping in the international cold chain. It also means additional consumer products built around the same underlying tech.

“There will be a lot more products that come out, beyond the current mugs and travel mugs,” Rowan says. “There’s a whole bunch of new products which are in the consumer pipeline and will launch in the next year or couple of years. And then you have the expansion into new geographies with existing products.”

That largely means Asia (Rowan will remain based in Singapore) and Europe. Thus far Ember’s footprint has been U.S.-centric, though a push toward online commerce amid the pandemic has helped expand it some. There does, however, remain a question of how high the ceiling is on adoption for a $130 electric smart mug. Ember has yet to release any actual numbers, and Rowan, whose experience at Dyson has more than familiarized him with selling premium products at a premium price point, isn’t ready to commit to a lower price point or less premium take on the space.

It’s worth noting, of course, that low end of the mug category is ready available at your local 99 cent store, and that’s not likely a space Ember is raring to compete in. And certainly those products — unlike its current lineup — likely wouldn’t end up in Apple Stores. Instead, it seems likely the company will continue a play as a premium consumer brand into additional categories at a more rapid pace. “The actual technology can expand into a whole bunch of new areas beyond just beverages because of the temperature control technology,” Rowan said.

Immunai raises $60M as it expands from improving immune therapies to discovering new ones, too

Just three years after its founding, biotech startup Immunai has raised $60 million in Series A funding, bringing its total raised to over $80 million. Despite its youth, Immunai has already established the largest database in the world for single cell immunity characteristics, and it has already used its machine learning-powered immunity analysts platform to enhance the performance of existing immunotherapies, but aided by this new funding, it’s now ready to expand into the development of entirely new therapies based on the strength and breadth of its data and ML.

Immunai’s approach to developing new insights around the human immune system uses a ‘multi-omic’ approach – essentially layering analysis of different types of biological data, including a cell’s genome, microbiome, epigenome (a genome’s chemical instruction set) and more. The startup’s unique edge is in combining the largest and richest data set of its type available, formed in partnership with world-leading immunological research organizations, with its own machine learning technology to deliver analytics at unprecedented scale.

“I hope it doesn’t sound corny, but we don’t have the luxury to move more slowly,” explained Immunai co-founder and CEO Noam Solomon in an interview. “Because I think that we are in kind of a perfect storm, where a lot of advances in machine learning and compute computations have led us to the point where we can actually leverage those methods to mine important insights. You have a limit or ceiling to how fast you can go by the number of people that you have – so I think with the vision that we have, and thanks to our very think large network between MIT, and Cambridge to Stanford in the Bay Area, and Tel Aviv, we just moved very quickly to harness people to say, let’s solve this problem together.”

Solomon and his co-founder and CTO Luis Voloch both have extensive computer science and machine learning backgrounds, and they initially connected and identified a need for the application of this kind of technology in immunology. Scientific co-founder and SVP of Strategic Research Danny Wells then helped them refine their approach to focus on improving efficacy of immunotherapies designed to treat cancerous tumors.

Immunai has already demonstrated that its platform can help identify optimal targets for existing therapies, including in a partnership with the Baylor College of Medicine where it assisted with a cell therapy product for use in treating neuroblastoma (a type of cancer that develops from immune cells, often in the adrenal glands). The company is now also moving into new territory with therapies, using its machine learning platform and industry-leading cell database to new therapy discovery – not only identifying and validating targets for existing therapies, but helping to create entirely new ones.

“We’re moving from just observing cells, but actually to going and perturbing them, and seeing what the outcome is,” explained Voloch. This, from the computational side, later allows us to move from correlative assessments to actually causal assessments, which makes our models a lot more powerful. Both on the computational side and on the on the lab side, this is really bleeding edge technologies that I think we will be the first to really put together at any kind of real scale.”

“The next step is to say ‘Okay, now that we understand the human immune profile, can we develop new drugs?’,” said Solomon. “You can think about it like we’ve been building a Google Maps for the immune system of a few years – so we are mapping different roads and paths in the in the immune system. But at some point, we figured out that there are certain roads or bridges that haven’t been built yet. And we will be able to support building new roads and new and new bridges, and hopefully leading from current states of disease or cities of disease, to building cities of health.”

NASA will use Fitbits to help prevent spread of COVID-19 to astronauts and employees

NASA will provide 1,000 of its employees, including 150 astronauts, with Fitbit devices in a pilot program designed to see if they can help supplement efforts to keep these mission-critical personnel healthy ahead of key space missions. The program will see NASA employees outfitted with a wearable, and provided access to a daily check-in app they can use to log potential symptoms, as well as their body temperature and other key health metrics, which could potentially help spot developing cases.

NASA has already been taking measures to isolate astronauts and to limit or prevent the spread of COVID-19 across its facilities, which are located across the U.S. It has of course followed local guidelines and requirements regarding COVID-19 protections, but it also introduced its own level-based system last year and implemented remote work protocols for many employees wherever possible. On the astronaut side, it has also beefed up existing isolation and sequestration procedures that are already quite strict in order to guarantee that its spacefarers don’t get sick before they’re set to make a trip to the International Space Station.

The new Fitbit program is designed to supplement those existing measure, providing tracked health metrics including resting heart rate and heart rate variability, as well as respiratory rate, changes in all of which all of which have been linked to COVID-19. Those stats, along with the self-reported metrics logged by users themselves, including any reports of potential symptoms, will be used by the app to provide individuals in the program with guidance about whether they should go into work, or stay home and take additional measures to find out if they have COVID-19.

Fitbit is already engaged in studies to determine whether or not its wearable devices and the metrics they log can be useful in providing early COVID-19 detection. Regardless of those results, self-reporting as well as the baseline health metrics that the app logs from its devices are already likely to be handy in providing a supplement to existing self-assessment measures regarding the level of risk you pose to others if you’re feeling off, which is the primary purpose of this program with NASA.