Every state but Alaska has reported vape lung victims, now numbering 1,479 nationwide

A lung condition apparently caused by vaping has been reported in every state but Alaska, the CDC has announced. The total number of suspected and confirmed cases has risen to 1,479, and at least 33 people have died as a result of the affliction.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) updates these numbers regularly and provides news on its progress in characterizing the condition, in which the only reliable shared factor is using vaping devices. More victims report using THC products than nicotine, but no specific chemical or mechanism has been proposed as the cause.

At the outset it appeared that the problem might have been rooted in a bad batch of unofficial vape cartridges tinged with some toxic chemical — and indeed the CDC has warned against buying vaping materials from any untrustworthy sources. But the scale of the problem has continuously grown and is now clearly nationwide, not local.

The demographics skew male (70 percent of victims) and younger: 79 percent are under 35, with a median of 23 (though for deaths the median is 44). 78 percent reported using THC products, while only 10 percent reported only using nicotine.

Reported victims are concentrated in Illinois and California, in both of which over a hundred cases have been reported, but that should not be taken as an indicator that states with fewer cases, like Kentucky and Oregon, are immune — they may simply be late to report. Likewise for U.S. territories, where only the Virgin Islands have reported cases — Puerto Rico and others are likely to be equally at risk.

lung cases oct15

If you use a vaping device and are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain (though other symptoms are also associated), you should probably check with your doctor. In the meantime the CDC has recommended ceasing all use of vaping products, though as many have pointed out that may end up pushing some users back to cigarettes. Angry about that? Direct it at the vaping companies, which promoted their products as smoking cessation tools without adequate testing.

The CDC and FDA, along with state and municipal health authorities and partners, are working on determining the cause and any potential treatments of the “lung injury associated with e-cigarette use,” as they call it. Tests and sampling efforts are underway — efforts that probably should have been done before these products were allowed on the market.

You can keep up with the latest stats at the CDC’s dedicated page.

Juul will stop selling mango, creme, fruit and cucumber pod flavors in the U.S.

Juul has stopped selling a number of its flavored nicotine products — mango, creme, fruit and cucumber — in the U.S., pending a review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Now, the vaping company will only sell the flavors that taste like tobacco, mint or menthol in the U.S., the company announced today.

“We must reset the vapor category by earning the trust of society and working cooperatively with regulators, policymakers, and stakeholders to combat underage use while providing an alternative to adult smokers,” Juul CEO K.C. Crosthwaite said in a statement.

This comes after Juul stopped actively supporting San Francisco’s Proposition C, ceased its advertising campaigns in the U.S and stopped lobbying the FDA on its draft flavor guidance.

But this doesn’t mean Juul is giving up on selling these flavors in the future. The company said it will continue to try to develop scientific evidence to support the use of those flavored products, as well as develop stricter measures to combat underage usage. Meanwhile, Juul is still selling all of its flavors outside of the U.S.

Earlier this week, a parent who lost her child filed a wrongful lawsuit against Juul. That suit is just one of several lawsuits Juul faces.

Will unreliable research bury your healthcare startup?

For healthtech founders and funders, scientific claims and conclusions are more than policy — business models depend upon the lucid appraisal of clinical problems, evaluating inadequacies in current standards of care, a clear understanding of disease pathways, and designing superior interventions. 

At each step along this value chain, founders stand on the shoulders of the scientists that preceded them to obtain reliable evidence. When they promote their own innovations, credibility is a critical prerequisite. But where does credibility come from?

A 2012 study selecting 50 common cookbook ingredients found that 80% had publications linking their consumption to cancer risk; according to some reports, tomatoes, lemons, and celery all cause cancer. The to-and-fro of nutrition science is emblematic of a larger dynamic related to fickle research findings across disciplines. Because investigators seeking to build upon seminal studies struggle to reproduce the original findings, researchers have deemed the problem a reproducibility crisis

Simulations have found that up to 85% of published findings could not be replicated. In turn, tens of billions of dollars are wasted and countless patient lives are adversely impacted annually due to unreliable research. 

Historically, academic research and healthcare VC have had considerable overlap, but in recent years, this co-dependence has increased as researchers are looking more and more for financial support. Government research funding has seen a steady decline, with private sources now supporting almost 60% of the spend. Biomedical VC has been portrayed as a critical source of risk capital for early-stage research and a key engine for its translation at later stages.

UK biotech startup Mogrify injects $16M to get novel cell therapies to market soon

Cambridge, UK-based biotech startup Mogrify, which is working on systematizing the development of novel cell therapies in areas such as regenerative medicine, has closed an initial $16 million Series A.

The raise from investors Ahren Innovation CapitalParkwalk and 24Haymarket follows a $4M seed in February — taking its total raised to date to $20M.

Put simply, Mogrify’s approach entails analysis of vast amounts of genomic data in order to identify the specific energetic changes needed to flip an adult cell from one type to another without having to reset it to a stem cell state — with huge potential utility for a wide variety of therapeutic use-cases.

“What we’re trying to do with Mogrify is systematize that process where you can say here’s my source cell, here’s my target cell, here are the differences between the networks… and here are the most likely points of intervention that we’re going to have to make to drive the fate of an adult cell to another adult cell without going through a stem cell stage,” says CEO and investor Dr Darrin Disley.

So far he says it’s successfully converted 15 cells out of 15 tries.

“We’re now rapidly moving those on through our own programs and partnership programs,” he adds.

Mogrify’s business has three main components: Internal program development of cell therapies (current cell therapies it’s developing include enhancing augmented cartilage implantation; non-invasive treatment of ocular damage; and for blood disorders). It’s also developing a universal source of cells for use in immunotherapy — to act as “disease-eaters”, as Disley puts it.

Speculative IP development is another focus. “Because of the systematic nature of the technology we’re in a position very rapidly to identify areas of therapy that have particular cell conversions at their essence — and then drive that IP generation around those cells very quickly and create an IP footprint,” he says.

Partnering deals is the third piece. Mogrify is also working with others to co-develop and bring targeted cell therapies to market. Disley says it’s already closed some partnerships, though it’s not announcing any names yet.

The startup is drawing on around a decade’s worth of recent work genomics science. And specifically on a data-set generated by an international research effort, called Fantom 5, which its founders had early access to.

“We started with that massive Fantom data-set. That’s the baseline, the background if you like. Think of it like two cities in America: Chicago and New York. There’s your source cell, there’s your target cell. And because you have all the background data of every piece of the network — every building, every skyscraper — if you look at the two you can identify the difference in the gene expression, therefore you can identify which factors will regulate a wide array of those genes. So you can start identifying the differences between the two,” explains Disley.

“We’ve then added to that massive data sets in DNA-protein and protein-protein interactions… so you start to now overlay all of that data. And then we’ve added on top of that new next-gen sequencing data and epigenetic data. So you’ve now got this massive data-set. It’s like having a network map between all the different cell types. So you’re therefore then able to make predictions on how many interventions, what interventions are needed to drive that change of state — and it’s systematic. It doesn’t just recommend one set. There’s a ranking. It can go down to hundreds. And there is some overlap and redundancies, so for example if one — you’re preferred thing — doesn’t work the way you wanted it to you can go back and select another.

“Or if there’s an IP issue around that factor you can ignore that piece of the network and use an alternative route. And once you’ve got to your target cell, if it needs to some tweaking you can actually re-sequence it and take that back and that’s your starting cell again. And you can go through this optimization process. So what comes out at the other end… you’ve got a patent that it like a small molecule composition of matter patent; it’s the therapeutic. So you’re not coming out with the target, you’re actually coming out with here is the composition of matter on the cell.”

In terms of timeframe for getting novel cell therapies from concept to market Disley suggests a range of between four and seven years.

“Once you’ve identified the cell type that can be be the basis of your GMP manufacturable process and then you can tweak that to take it to the therapeutic indication you can develop a cell therapy and bring that to market in five years,” he says. “It’s not like the old days with small molecules where it can take ten, 15, 20 years to get a serious therapy on the market.

“When you’re treating patients… is because there are no other treatments for them, when you go into phase two and do your safety study [and] efficacy study you’re actually treating patients already in terms of their disease. And if you get it right you can get a fast track approval. Or a conditional approval… so that you may not even have to do a phase 3 [testing].”

“We’re not using any artificial intelligence here,” he also emphasizes, pointing to his experience investing in companies in the “big extreme data space” which he argues do best by using “unbiased approaches”.

“AI I think is still trying to find its way,” he continues. “Because in its essence it will be able to get to answers with smaller amounts of data but it’s only as good as the data you train it on. And the danger with AI… it just learns to recognize what you want it to recognize. It doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.

“In combination, once you continue to generate this massive cell network data etc you can start applying aspects of machine learning and AI. But you couldn’t do Mogrify with AI without the data. You have to do it that way. And the data is so complex and combinatorial — 2,000 transcription factors, in terms of regulation of those genes, they then interact in network to do the protein-protein interactions, you’ve got epigenetic aspects of that, you could even start adding cell microbiome effects to that later — so you’ve got a lot of factors that could influence the phenotype of the cell that’s coming out the other end.

“So I think with AI you have to be a little careful. I think it will be a more optimizing tool once you’ve got sufficient confidence in your system.”

The plan for the Series A funding is to ramp up Mogrify’s corporate operations and headcount — including bringing in senior executives and expertise from industry — as well as spending to fund its therapy development programs.

Disley notes its recent appointment of Dr Jane Osbourn as chair as one example.

“We’re bringing in more people with a lot of cell therapy experience from big pharma, around then more on the manufacturing and delivery of that — so really building so that we’re not just a tech company,” he says. “We’ve very strong already, we’re already 35 people on the tech and early stage drug discovery side — we’re going to add another 30 to that. But that’s going to be increasingly more people with big pharma, cell therapy development, manufacturing experience to get products on to market.”

Partner search is another focus for the Series A. “We’re trying to find the right strategy partners. We’re not doing services, we’re not doing products — so we want to find the right strategic partners in terms of doing multi-programs in a partnership,” he adds. “And then a series of more tactical deals where people have got a specific problem with a cell conversion. These more turnkey deals, if you like. We still get up-fronts, milestones and royalties but they’re smaller.”

Despite now having enough money for the next two to two and half years it’s also leaving the Series A open to continue expanding the round over the next 12 months — up to a maximum of another $16M.

“We have so many interested investors,” Disley tells us. “This round we didn’t actually open our round. We did it with internal investors and people we’re very close to who we’ve worked with before, and there were investors lining up… [so] we are leaving it open so that in these next 12 months we may choose to increase the amount we bring in.

“It would be a maximum of another $16M if it was an A round but we may decide just to go straight forward if we progress very fast to a much bigger B round.”

Startup says ‘Sober is the new black’

Maveron, Slow Ventures and Female Founders Fund have invested $10 million in a startup that claims it’s carving a new path to sobriety.

Tempest offers a $647 eight-week virtual “sobriety school” to help people, particularly women and “historically oppressed individuals,” get sober. The program is led by the company’s founder and chief executive officer Holly Whitaker, who conducts weekly video lectures and Q+As for participants. Offering their expertise as part of the package is marriage and family therapist Kim Kokoska; Valerie (Vimalasara) Mason-John, the co-founder of Eight Step Recovery; and wellness coach Mary Vance, among others.

Tempest teaches the underlying causes of addiction and the “importance of purpose, meaning and creativity in breaking addiction,” as well as how to manage cravings, how to navigate social situations as a non-drinker, how to develop a mindfulness practice and more. At the end of the program, participants can pay a $127 fee for an annual membership to the Tempest online community, where one can communicate with others who’ve completed the program.

Tempest Syllabus
Week 1: Recovery Maps + Toolkits
Week 2: Addiction & The Brain
Week 3: Habit and Night Ritual
Week 4: Yoga, Meditation and Breath
Week 5: Nutrition & Lifestyle
Week 6: Relationships & Community
Week7: Trauma & Therapy
Week 8: Purpose & Creativity
Week 8+ Wrapping Up + Next Steps

Dashboard Week 2

A snapshot of Tempest’s weekly coursework.

A holistic approach

Founded in 2014, New York-based Tempest has raised about $14.3 million in total VC funding. Whitaker previously spent five years at One Medical, where she was the director of revenue cycle operations. Since founding Tempest, which has enrolled 4,000 participants to date, Whitaker received a two-book deal from Random House to document her methodologies and path to sobriety. Her first book, ‘Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol,’ will be released on December 31.

Today, her business has 28 employees and plans to build out its team, invest in marketing — where it’s historically had very low spend — and explore business opportunities within the enterprise using cash from the $10 million Series A.

“Sobriety, and the refusal to partake in alcogenic culture, is subversive, rebellious, and edgy.” - Tempest

The company is careful to clarify it’s not a detox or 12-step program, like Alcoholics Anonymous, which is structured around the Twelve Steps to recovery. Rather, Tempest can be used in combination with other programs or therapies, or as a first step down the path to recovery. Whitaker explains Tempest isn’t only for the clinically addicted or those who consider themselves addicts or alcoholics. The company welcomes people who have rejected these labels or simply want to cut alcohol out of their life.

“Tempest grew out of my own experience,” Whitaker, who has previously struggled with alcoholism and an eating disorder, tells TechCrunch. “It was a response to the lack of desirable and accessible options to address problematic drinking, the lack of options available for people who don’t identify as alcoholics but struggle with alcohol and the lack of options that have been created for women and other individuals. Everything had been created for men.”

Tempest is tailored to the needs of women and historically oppressed individuals, says Whitaker, though all genders are welcome to complete its course. Taking a holistic approach to recovery, participants are encouraged to address the factors that led them to drink in the first place, including “love lives, poor nutrition, stress, anxiety, crap friendships, consumerism, lack of purpose, unresolved family of origin issues, disenfranchisement, poverty, tight or unmanageable finances, lack of connection, fear, shitty jobs we hate, depression, unprocessed trauma, lack of meaning, unfulfilled dreams, never-ending to-do lists, never-measuring-upness,” the company writes.

TempestWebsite

Tempest’s website

But what about A.A.?

I had the same question.

Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), the most popular and accessible approach to recovery, is free and open to anyone willing to acknowledge they have a drinking problem. A nonprofit organization, A.A. has more than 115,000 groups worldwide. The 84-year-old program is built on peer-support groups that gather regularly for discussion meetings. Over time, more seasoned members can become “sponsors,” helping newer entrants work through the Twelve Steps.

Tempest, alternatively, is taking a for-profit approach, charging for its tech-infused method. And where A.A. emphasizes in-person support groups, Tempest relies on video streams. Increasingly, telemedicine startups are enticing customers with convenient options for health and wellness care but whether people will truly pivot to telemedicine, tele-therapy or virtual sobriety schools is still up for debate. As for Tempest’s similarities to A.A., Whitaker says: “The only thing they have in common is that they are working to help people quit alcohol.”

“By just trying on sobriety or questioning our drink-centric culture, you are profoundly ahead of the pack.” - Tempest

In selling its sobriety school, Tempest evokes a sense of coolness, with phrases like “Sober is the new black” and “Your hangover goes away. Your social life doesn’t,” plastered on its website. In providing a priced and more exclusive route to sobriety, one might question Tempest’s ethics and motivations as it builds a business that capitalizes off of substance abuse. Whitaker, in defense, explains a virtual school fit for the historically powerless is a necessary addition to existing options: “Our program is centered on individuals who have been held out of power, who have been told to shut up and listen,” she said. “We aren’t looking at white, upper-class men. We are looking at a queer person from 2019.”

According to survey data published by Recovery.org, 89% of A.A. attendees are white, while 38% are female.

Refusing ‘alcogenic culture’

Tempest’s branding takes a cue from the D2C playbook. The company, led by women, has the opportunity to become the brand that represents sobriety, and it’s taking it. Tempest’s Series A, coupled with the influx of new-age non-alcoholic beverage brands backed by VCs, is representative of the perceived shift away from alcohol among the younger generations.

Millennials are drinking less alcohol and, according to the World Health Organization, there are 5% fewer alcohol drinkers in the world today than in 2000. Tempest’s school seems to cater more to the cohort of people who view ditching alcohol as a lifestyle perk, not those who stop drinking due to addiction.

Holly Whitaker

Tempest founder and CEO Holly Whitaker

Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirits company, and India’s Coolberg Beverages, which makes non-alcoholic beer, recently raised VC to cater to a similar demographic. Meanwhile, CBD-infused beverage brands like Sweet Reason, Cann and Recess are trendy and raising venture money. None of these, of course, are solutions for someone struggling with alcohol. Capital flowing into these brands merely indicates venture capitalists’ belief that consumers are steering away from traditional liquor and toward new products fit for a generation that is drinking less alcohol.

“By just trying on sobriety or questioning our drink-centric culture, you are profoundly ahead of the pack and among good company,” Tempest writes on its website. “Remember: 70-80% of adults drink depending on where you live; drinking is basic. Sobriety, and the refusal to partake in alcogenic culture, is subversive, rebellious, and edgy.”

Tempest says it has completed an efficacy study performed in consultation with researchers affiliated with the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University. In several years’ time, we’ll know whether the countless think pieces claiming millennials are done with alcohol were indeed true and whether the VC money into these upstarts was wasted or pure genius. As for Tempest, even if just providing a designated place on the internet for discussions around the struggles or benefits of sobriety, it has the potential to make a big impact on those in recovery or those seeking a lifestyle change.

“Alcohol is very similar to cigarettes,” Whitaker said. “We are in a time that we think drinking alcohol is natural, that we are supposed to do it. I thought that would change because to me, alcohol is entirely toxic. We are approaching this tipping point of realizing how toxic and unnecessary it is.”

Tempest is also backed by AlleyCorp, Refactor and Green D Ventures. Maveron’s Anarghya Vardhana has joined the startup’s board of directors as part of the latest deal.

This startup just raised $8 million to help busy doctors assess the cognitive health of 50 million seniors

All over the globe, the population of people who are aged 65 and older is growing faster than every other age group. According to United Nations data, by 2050, one in six people in the world will be over age 65, up from one in 11 right now. Meanwhile, in Europe and North America, by 2050, one in four people could be 65 or over.

Unsurprisingly, startups increasingly recognize opportunities to cater to this aging population. Some are developing products to sell to individuals and their family members directly; others are coming up with ways to empower those who work directly with older Americans.

BrainCheck, a 20-person, Houston-based startup whose cognitive healthcare product aims to help physicians assess and track the mental health of their patients, is among the latter. Investors like what it has put together, too. Today, the startup is announcing $8 million in Series A funding round co-led by S3 Ventures and Tensility Venture Partners.

We talked earlier today with BrainCheck cofounder and CEO Yael Katz to better understand what her company has created and why it might be of interest to doctors who don’t know about it. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: You’re a neuroscientist. You started BrianCheck with David Eagleman, another neuroscientist and the CEO of NeoSensory, a company that develops devices for sensory substitution. Why? What’s the opportunity here?

YK: We looked across the landscape, and we realized that most cognitive assessment is [handled by] a subspecialty of clinical psychology called neuropsychology, where patients are given a series a tests and each is designed to probe a different type of brain function — memory, visual attention, reasoning, executive function. They measure speed and accuracy, and based on that, determine whether there’s a deficit in that domain. But the tests were classically done on paper and it was a lengthy process. We digitized them and gamified them and made them accessible to everyone who are upstream of neuropsychology, including neurologists and primary care doctors.

We created a tech solution that provides clinical decision support to physicians so they can manage patients’ cognitive health. There are 250,000 primary care physicians in the U.S. and 12,000 neurologists and [they’re confronting] what’s been called a silver tsunami. With so many becoming elderly, it’s not possible for them to address the need of the aging population without tech to help them.

TC: How does your product work, and how is it administered?

YK: An assessment is all done on an iPad and takes about 10 minutes. They’re typically administered in a doctor’s office by medical technicians, though they can be administered remotely through telemedicine, too.

TC: These are online quizzes?

YK: Not quizzes and not subjective questions like, ‘How do you think you’re doing?’ but rather objective tasks, like connect the dots, and which way is the center arrow pointing — all while measuring speed and accuracy.

TC: How much does it cost these doctors’ offices, and how are you getting word out?

YZ: We sell a monthly subscription to doctors and it’s a tiered pricing model as measured by volume. We meet doctors at conferences and we publish blog posts and white papers and through that process, we meet them and sell products to them, beginning with a free trial for 30 days, during which time we also give them a web demo.

[What we’re selling] is reimbursable by insurance because it helps them report on and optimize metrics like patient satisfaction. Medicare created a new code to compensate doctors for cognitive care planning though it was rarely used because the requirements and knowledge involved was so complicated. When we came along, we said, let us help you do what you’re trying to do, and it’s been very rewarding.

TC: Say one of these assessments enables a non specialist to determine that someone is losing memory or can’t think as sharply. What then?

YZ: There’s a phrase: “Diagnose and adios.” Unfortunately, a lot of doctors used to see their jobs as being done once an assessment was made. It wasn’t appreciated that impairment and dementia are things you can address. But about one third of dementia is preventable, and once you have the disease, it can be slowed.  It’s hard because it requires a lot of one-on-one work, so we created a tech solution that uses the output of tests to provide clinical support to physicians so they can manage patients’ cognitive health. We provide personalized recommendations in a way that’s scalable.

TC: Meaning you suggest an action plan for the doctors to pass along to their patients based on these assessments?

YZ: There are nine modifiable risk factors found to account for a third of [dementia cases], including certain medications that can exacerbate cognitive impairment, including poorly controlled cardiovascular health, hearing impairment, and depression. People can have issues for many reasons — multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s — but health conditions like major depression and physical conditions like cancer and treatments like chemotherapy can cause brain fog. We suggest a care plan that goes to the doctor who then uses that information and modifies it. A lot of it has to do with medication management.

A lot of the time, a doctor — and family members — don’t know how impaired a patient is. You can have a whole conversation with someone during a doctor’s visit who is regaling you with great conversation, then you realize they have massive cognitive deficits. These assessments kind of put everyone on the same page.

TC: You’ve raised capital. How will you use it to move your product forward?

YK: We’ll be combining our assessments with digital biomarkers like changing voice patterns and a test of eye movements. We’ve developed an eye-tracking technology and voice algorithms, but those are still in clinical development; we’re trying to get FDA approval for them now.

TC: Interesting that changing voice patterns can help you diagnose cognitive decline.

YK: We aren’t diagnosing disease. Think of us as a thermometer that [can highlight] how much impairment is there and in what areas and how it’s progressed over time.

TC: What can you tell readers who might worry about their privacy as it relates to your product?

YK: Our software is HIPAA compliant. We make sure our engineers are trained and up to date. The FDA requires that we we put a lot of standards in place and we ensure that our database is built in accordance with best practices. I think we’re doing as good a job as anyone can.

Privacy is a concern in general. Unfortunately, companies big and small have to be ever vigilant about a data breach.

83North closes $300M fifth fund focused on Europe, Israel

83North has closed its fifth fund, completing an oversubscribed $300 million raise and bringing its total capital under management to $1.1BN+.

The VC firm, which spun out from Silicon Valley giant Greylock Partners in 2015 — and invests in startups in Europe and Israel, out of offices in London and Tel Aviv — last closed a $250M fourth fund back in 2017.

It invests in early and growth stage startups in consumer and enterprise sectors across a broad range of tech areas including fintech, data centre & cloud, enterprise software and marketplaces.

General partner Laurel Bowden, who leads the fund, says the latest close represents investment business as usual, with also no notable changes to the mix of LPs investing for this fifth close.

“As a fund we’re really focused on keeping our fund size down. We think that for just the investment opportunity in Europe and Israel… these are good sized funds to raise and then return and make good multiples on,” she tells TechCrunch. “If you go back in the history of our fundraising we’re always somewhere between $200M-$300M. And that’s the size we like to keep.”

“Of course we do think there’s great opportunities in Europe and Israel but not significantly different than we’ve thought over the last 15 years or so,” she adds.

83North has made around 70 investments to date — which means its five partners are usually making just one investment apiece per year.

The fund typically invests around $1M at the seed level; between $4M-$8M at the Series A level and up to $20M for Series B, with Bowden saying around a quarter of its investments go into seed (primarily into startups out of Israel); ~40% into Series A; and ~30% Series B.

“It’s somewhat evenly mixed between seed, Series A, Series B — but Series A is probably bigger than everything,” she adds.

It invests roughly half and half in its two regions of focus.

The firm has had 15 exits of portfolio companies (three of which it claims as unicorns). Recent multi-billion dollar exits for Bowden are: Just Eat, Hybris (acquired by SAP), iZettle (acquired by PayPal) and Qlik.

While 83North has a pretty broad investment canvas, it’s open to new areas — moving into IoT (with recent investments in Wiliot and VDOO), and also taking what it couches as a “growing interest” in healthtech and vertical SaaS. 

“Some of my colleagues… are looking at areas like lidar, in-vehicle automation, looking at some of the drone technologies, looking at some even healthtech AI,” says Bowden. “We’ve looked at a couple of those in Europe as well. I’ve looked, actually, at some healthtech AI. I haven’t done anything but looked.

“And also all things related to data. Of course the market evolves and the technology evolves but we’ve done things related to BI to process automation through to just management of data ops, management of data. We always look at that area. And think we’ll carry on for a number of years. ”

“In venture you have to expand,” she adds. “You can’t just stay investing in exactly the same things but it’s more small additional add-ons as the market evolves, as opposed to fundamental shifts of investment thesis.”

Discussing startup valuations, Bowden says European startups are not insulated from wider investment dynamics that have been pushing startup valuations higher — and even, arguably, warping the market — as a consequence of more capital being raised generally (not only at the end of the pipe).

“Definitely valuations are getting pushed up,” she says. “Definitely things are getting more competitive but that comes back to exactly why we’re focused on raising smaller funds. Because we just think then we have less pressure to invest if we feel that valuations have got too high or there’s just a level… where startups just feel the inclination to raise way more money than they probably need — and that’s a big reason why we like to keep our fund size relatively small.”

Amid mounting concerns around vaping cannabis, entrepreneurs say regulators need to step up

As concerns over the safety of vaping products for cannabis sweeps across the country, executives in the industry are passing the buck to regulators to come up with a solution.

The need for national regulation touches everything from how to bank cannabis businesses to how to manage the distribution of cannabis products, but the pain is most acute as vaping-related illnesses sweep the United States.

To date, the CDC has recorded roughly 1,080 lung injury cases associated with using e-cigarette, or vaping, products in 48 states and one U.S. territory. According to the agency, 18 deaths have been confirmed in 15 states, so far. And most of those patients report a history of using THC-containing products.

“I want the CDC and the regulatory bodies that are actually looking into the case to kind of investigate those causes and come back,” said Bharat Vasan, the former chief executive officer at Pax Labs, a marijuana vaporizer manufacturer, speaking onstage at Disrupt San Francisco 2019. Vasan declined to address whether Pax Labs products could be considered 100% safe. “I think that’s a good question for the company,” said the former chief executive who had worked for Pax for over a year.

Both Vasan, who now runs a consumer-focused incubator, Yellow Dog Ventures, and Eaze and Wayv founder Keith McCarty, think that more regulation would fuel growth and provide more stability for a market that’s already the fastest-growing industry in the United States.

“It’s like the final stage of prohibition,” says Vasan. “It’s ending, but it’s ending state by state by state for cannabis.”

Keith McCarty WayvDSC03851

New bills like the SAFE Act, which recently passed the House of Representatives, would allow national banks to work with cannabis companies. The lack of access to appropriate financial services has been one source of friction in the U.S. cannabis industry. Although it hasn’t stopped any number of entrepreneurs like Vasan, McCarty and others from launching businesses to serve the industry.

Still, it’s a bit of a scary time for many executives in the industry. Bruce Linton was ousted at Canopy Growth, and chief operating officer Ben Cook and General Counsel Lisa Sergi Trager, resigned from MedMen Enterprises. And there’s still a potentially toxic cloud of vapor hanging over the industry in the form of additives and chemicals that have been linked to wave of lung illnesses that swept through the country over the past year, according to the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.

Despite the headwinds for vaping, America is clearly becoming cannabis country. “It still happens to be the fastest-growing industry in the world,” McCarty said. And even though venture capital investors can’t invest into the industry directly, the ancillary services, products and logistic requirements to build a fully functioning, mature industry, represents a significant opportunity for entrepreneurs.

“The market and the population is saying through sentiment that we want this,” said McCarty, [and] this industry continues to move in the right direction… up and to the right.”

At the same time, McCarty also sees the need for more government regulation to move the industry fully into the realm of legitimate, regulated enterprises and rid cannabis of the grey and black market operators that have far more freedom to sell harmful products, thanks to their under-the-table operations.

“We have three times as many illicit dispensaries as we do ones that are legal in the state of California,” says McCarty. “And what the voters voted in is safe access. Safe access is about availability of access points to be able to receive and consume cannabis based on the law and regulations.”

Ultimately, McCarty sees the support for the continuing integration of cannabis products as legal medical and recreational options as something that should have bi-partisan support.

“Our government should be looking at voter sentiment and the population . . . is overwhelmingly in support of cannabis . . . well beyond that for medical and even for recreational . . . so it’s probably one of the . . . only items on the agenda, too, that is bipartisan, like truly supported by parties,” McCarty says. “I’m talking about putting money towards schools, books, education as opposed to all the illicit things that we’re trying to break away from, like the illicit sale of things that you know that may be harming people from a health and wellness perspective.”

Natalist founder Halle Tecco wants to get you pregnant

Halle Tecco is no stranger to conception struggles. The Rock Health founder and former CEO has been public about her journey on social media, including two rounds of IVF, eventually leading to a healthy baby girl. Now, she wants to help others make babies, too.

To get there, Tecco has joined a class of new fertility tech companies that have popped up in the last few years. Taking from her years of experience building Rock Health, she’s now launched a new company called Natalist, which offers conception products “inspired by beauty and backed by science” to help those hoping to get pregnant in the near future.

Screen Shot 2019 10 02 at 2.49.21 PMYou can pick and choose various products in Natalist’s pretty packaging or opt for the basic “Get Pregnant” bundle, which includes 7 ovulation and 3 pregnancy tests, a one-month supply of prenatal vitamins and Omega DHA, plus the company’s Conception 101 book.

Of course, that package merely provides the basics for any healthy woman with a regular period and no other fertility issues — and, besides the book, its all something you could find in your local pharmacy. But, as Tecco was quick to point out, not every woman is keen on going into their local CVS, grabbing a pregnancy test and taking it up to the register. In fact, many women Tecco polled before starting her company mentioned the need in the market for discretion. Buying online from a trusted brand would provide them with both privacy and security in the product.

While Natalist’s first offerings are the minimum for anyone trying to make a baby, Tecco has already raised a cool $5 million to build out products addressing more serious fertility concerns like PCOS and endometriosis, which combined affect one out of every five women in their child bearing years and can make it a lot harder to get pregnant or make a pregnancy stick.

“We plan to use the funding to bring new products to market but we wanted to start with products that are sort of tried and true,” Tecco told Techcrunch, further explaining she’d like to see Natalist be more than just physical products and become more of a platform to help women through their pregnancy journey.

“We really want to have a support platform for women who have questions or concerns, really creating a great customer experience and helping them troubleshoot if things aren’t going the way that they want them to and also arm them with information and knowledge around getting pregnant,” Tecco said.

While she doesn’t see herself creating something like the app Glow, which both offers information and data through various stages of pregnancy and a community of women working on becoming pregnant, she does see the value of collaboration with these types of communities on various fertility apps and would like to reach out to those founders to see if there might be something there they can work on in the future as well.

For those interested in checking out Natalist’s products, the “Get Pregnant” bundle starts at $90 for a one time purchase or $75 per month for the subscription plan. You can also add products from the site a la carte, should you want more tests or vitamins than what’s in the one-month package.

And for those of you TechCrunch readers interested in the funding details, Natalist took in seed money from Collaborative Fund, Cowboy Ventures, Fuel Capital, Rock Health and xFund, as well as several well-known angel investors, including Katrina Lake, Julia Cheek, Christine Lemke, John Doerr, Malay Gandhi, David Vivero, and R. Martin Chavez.

MyMilk Labs launches Mylee, a small sensor that analyzes breast milk at home

Many expectant mothers are told that breastfeeding will come naturally, but it is often a fraught and confusing experience, especially during the first few weeks after birth. Parents often worry about if their babies are getting enough nutrition or if they are producing enough milk. MyMilk Labs wants to give nursing mothers more information with Mylee, a sensor that scans a few drops of breast milk to get information about its composition and connects to a mobile app. The Israel-based company presented today at Disrupt Battlefield as one of two wild card competitors picked from Startup Alley.

The Mylee launched at Disrupt with a pre-order price of $249 (its regular retail price is $349). Based in Israel, MyMilk Labs was founded in 2014 by Ravid Schecter and Sharon Haramati, who met while working on PhDs in neuroimmunology and neurobiology, respectively, at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Mylee deviceDuring the company’s stage presentation, Schecter said the device is meant to give mothers and lactation consultants objective information about breast milk.

Breast milk changes in the first days and weeks after birth, progressing from colostrum to mature milk. Mylee scans the electrochemical properties of milk and then correlates that to data points based on MyMilk Labs’ research to calculate where the sample is on the continuum, then tells mothers if their milk is “delayed” or “advanced,” relative to the time that has passed since they gave birth.

The device’s first version is currently in a beta pilot with lactation consultants who have used them to scan milk samples from 500 mothers.

MyMilk Labs already has consumer breast milk testing kits that enable mothers to provide a small sample at home that is then sent to MyMilk Labs’ laboratories for analysis. One is a nutritional panel that gives information about the milk’s levels of vitamins B6, B12 and A, calories and fat percentage, along with dietary recommendations for the mother. Another panel focuses on what is causing breast pain, a frequent complaint for nursing mothers. It tests for bacterial or fungal infections and gives antibiotic suggestions depending on what strains are detected.

Though some doctors believe testing kits are unnecessary for the majority of nursing mothers, there is demand for more knowledge about breastfeeding, as demonstrated by the line-up of breast milk testing kits from MyMilk Labs and competitors like Lactation Labs, Everly Well and Happy Vitals. Haramati said on stage that MyMilk Labs plans to eventually transfer some of the tests’ capabilities to the Mylee.