Illumina taps former Google exec to lead liquid biopsy spinoff

Jeffrey Huber

Illumina ($ILMN) said last month that it was "actively recruiting" a CEO for its new liquid biopsy spinoff, Grail, looking for someone with an extensive tech background. Now the company has tapped a former Google exec for the role, charging its new leader with helping Grail develop a screening test for the early detection of cancer.

Jeffrey Huber, who formerly ran Google's Geo division including Google Maps and Google Earth, will take the reins at Grail starting on Feb. 29, Huber told FierceMedicalDevices. The news comes as GV, formerly known as Google Ventures, announced that it would contribute to a previously announced Series A round to finance the spinoff, Illumina said in a statement.

Huber brings an extensive resume to the table, with experience developing large-scale systems at companies such as Google ($GOOG), eBay and [email protected] The exec also sat on Illumina's board of directors from 2014 to 2016, which gives him some familiarity with the company as he heads into his new role at Grail.

"Jeff helped Google map the world, and he'll help us map the molecular biology of the microscopic cancer DNA that might be circulating in our blood," Illumina CEO Jay Flatley said in a statement. "We believe this effort has the potential to save millions of lives, and convert cancer to a curable disease for many through early detection."

Early cancer detection hits close to home for Huber. The CEO's wife, Laura, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer last year after displaying mild symptoms, and Huber said that her late-stage diagnosis proved fatal. "If Laura had a blood test that diagnosed the cancer, there's a chance that she could have had surgery before the cancer metastasized," Huber said. "That's what we want to do for other people, to catch the cancer early on."

In January, Illumina transferred its liquid biopsy work to Grail. The spinoff is backed by $100 million in Series A financing from investors including Illumina, ARCH Venture Partners, Bill Gates, Sutter Hill Ventures and Bezos Expeditions.

Ultimately, Grail wants to use Illumina's sequencing technology to pinpoint nucleic acids from tumors in the bloodstream, which could potentially identify the disease in earlier stages. The spinoff will spend the rest of the year building the technology and infrastructure to carry out large-scale clinical trials for its cancer tests, Flatley said last month.

And Grail will move "as quickly as we can" over the next two years to develop its products and complete its tests, Huber said. In 2017, the company plans to initiate clinical studies for its circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) tests. If all goes according to schedule, Grail could roll out its products by 2019.

The company sees big potential in the spinoff. Illumina figures that ctDNA tests that can screen for stage 2 cancers could translate into a $20 billion to $40 billion opportunity. And a ctDNA test for stage 1 cancer could unlock a $100 billion to $200 billion market, Flatley said.

Leerink analysts are on board with those numbers, predicting a market between $20 billion to $200 billion for Grail's tests. Cancer screening "has long been the holy grail market opportunity" for Illumina, the analysts said last month, and the spinoff delivers on Flatley's goal of doubling down on liquid biopsy to generate long-term growth.

- here's the statement