Andreessen Horowitz’s recently founded $200 million biotech fund has led an investment in software-enabled liquid biopsy upstart Freenome. The money will allow Freenome to hire software engineers and machine learning experts to help it bring its cancer test to market.
Palo Alto, CA-based Freenome tapped a clutch of big-name investors for the $5.5 million. Andreessen Horowitz, the storied West Coast investor also known as a16z, used its months-old biotech-focused fund to lead the round. Founders Fund, Data Collective Venture Capital and Third Kind Venture Capital--which list Stemcentrx, Ginkgo Bioworks and PillPack in their healthcare portfolios--also put money into the round.
The tech-skewed investor list is a reflection of what Freenome sees as being unique about it in the increasingly congested blood testing startup sector. “The novel aspect of our technology and what makes our technology so different from the other companies isn't that we have novel biology. We have novel tech that leverages the biology,” Freenome CEO Gabe Otte told Silicon Valley Business Journal.
Freenome has built what it calls the Adaptive Genomics Engine. The idea is to analyze all the genetic material found in a blood sample, rather than homing in on signatures known to be found in cancer, and use computers to figure out what combinations of sequences indicate the presence of tumors of different types. Ultimately, Freenome wants its test to characterize tumors to the extent that it can predict which drug or combination of drugs are likely to be most effective.
Such claims are hardly unique, though. Before a16z invested in Freenome, it sent 5 blood plasma samples to the company and tasked it with categorizing them. In a blog post to discuss the financing, Freenome said it correctly characterized three of the samples as cancers at various stages of disease progression, and the other two as normal. That provided a16z’s biotech fund, which is led by Stanford University professor Vijay Pande, with the reassurance it needed to invest.
The wider world will have to wait a little longer for details of exactly how the tech works and whether it functions as Freenome claims. Recognizing the scrutiny blood testing firms will face post-Theranos, Freenome is preparing to publish a peer-reviewed paper in the coming months. In parallel, Freenome is working with the CMS and the FDA on premarket review. "[A16z’s Pande] and I saw eye-to-eye on how this should be done, validating everything at every step along the way," Otte said.
That process will now gain fresh impetus with a hiring spree. Freenome plans to triple its current headcount of 5, bringing on experts in software and machine learning in the process. Having moved its center of gravity from Philadelphia, PA, to Palo Alto, CA, Freenome thinks it is well placed to make these hires. “This move was all about getting the right people, the right advisers and the right connections,” Otte said.