Biotech legend Lee Hood gambles $36M on a plan to revolutionize healthcare

Lee Hood

Sequencing pioneer Lee Hood has already started enough biotechs to create his own cluster. And now he's taking another shot at the founding scientist's role, joining hands with a pair of high-profile biotech investment groups which are contributing a $36 million B round for a startup that has its sights set on nothing less than transforming healthcare--and our attitudes toward it.

The company is Arivale, which is based in Seattle and today has 19 staffers and enough money in the bank to move past beta testing and straight into the consumer business of "scientific wellness," which it's branding as a whole new field. Using new, better and cheaper sequencing tech, Arivale plans to provide full-genome sequencing along with quarterly blood and gut microbiome tests needed to provide detailed insight into a person's health over a years-long partnership. And they'll be hiring a battalion of trained nutritionists to use the information gathered to coach people to healthier lives.

The objective at Arivale, says Hood, is to "create a dense data cloud of each individual" that can be matched with a profile of a person's activities and sleep patterns to develop an informed approach to wellness, one-on-one. And they'll be signing up consumers for an annual fee of $2,000.

None of this would have been possible even a few years ago, as companies like 23andMe got started with a simple snapshot of limited genomic info with much the same basic goal in mind. But sequencing costs have now dropped into the $1,000- to $1,500-per-person range, says Arivale CEO Clayton Lewis, the co-founder of the company, making it possible to capture the whole genome. And he plans to play a big role in terms of bringing down that number even more as Arivale brings sequencing to the masses.

"We're going to drive it down as far as we can," Hood, the founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, says about sequencing costs. In the meantime, though, mum's the word on what the company expects to pay for sequencing, with negotiations still under way with a group of potential suppliers in the field.

Lewis says the company did a prelaunch in Seattle a couple of weeks ago, looking to recruit 100 people much the way they set out to do a beta test for Arivale in what was called the Hundred Person Wellness Project, which set out to assess what kind of impact you could have on a person's health with a full dossier of sequencing data and blood and gut tests. They ended up with 150 in a few days, and hundreds more on the waiting list.

The big selling point, he says, came from the individuals already signed on. They in turn attracted friends and family members to the notion, and the same kind of grassroots campaigning is expected to help complete the launch in Seattle, with San Francisco up next and other markets to follow in 2016.

Polaris Partners and Arch Venture Partners, two venture groups with a well-known hunger for backing biotech startups, are crossing into consumer healthcare to back this company. Consumer venture group Maveron also contributed to the round.

Arch managing director Bob Nelsen says he was an early investor in sequencing pioneers.

"We were the seed investor in Illumina, deCODE, and NextCode, so have always been an innovator in genomics," Nelsen tells FierceBiotech in an emailed response. "The biggest issue in previous efforts is whether the data is actionable, how to actually use the data to change behavior, and how to make money from that. Arivale is the first effort to attempt to solve all three in an integrated manner. Solving one in the consumer space is a way to lose money. Solving all three can be a home run."

"I think the biggest opportunity we're going to have is to look at the dark matter of human biology like we've never done before," says Hood, adding that the company will continue to track and evaluate the flood of new insights on genetics and the microbiome as they occur. That in turn will allow the company to use new apps to alert customers about new developments related to their health, partnering on a journey designed to change the system's current relentless focus on treatment in favor of "scientific wellness."

Changing the world is quite a task for any company, and it won't come cheap. Lewis isn't talking in detail about the numbers, but he expects the staff will swell to 50 by the end of the year and additional money will be needed to be invested over the first two years, as the company looks to follow its business map to profitability. In the meantime, Hood says that a vast cloud of new personal genomic data can become a big resource for everyone in life sciences looking to create new products.

Hood helped create the sequencing tech needed to allow the Human Genome Project to succeed. Now 76, he has some of the best contacts in the industry, including Eric Topol at Scripps and George Church at Harvard, who are joining a stellar cast on the company's scientific advisory board.

"This has the most potential for transforming human health," Hood noted when asked about what sets Arivale apart from his other startups, including Amgen ($AMGN). Still playing the role of pioneer, Hood has set his sights on the biggest goal in his career.