October 2017: Tech Scouting Highlights

The latest insights from Micki Cabral and the SU Exponential Technology and Startup Radar team

Precision Medicine:  A Paradigm Shift in Healthcare

What is precision medicine?

Precision medicine is one of the most talked-about trends in the healthcare space today. But what is it? Put simply, precision medicine is an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that leverages information about an individual’s genetic profile, lifestyle, and environment to not only treat diseases more effectively but also identify impending health issues.

In other words, in a perfect world, through precision medicine, we’ll be able to analyze a person’s medical history, DNA, and lifestyle factors and combine this information with millions of treatment combinations, insights from medical journals, and other scientific data to diagnose and treat diseases as well as identify and address them before they even start.

How can it help us?

Precision medicine’s potential promises a true paradigm shift in the way people receive healthcare. First, we’ll see a pronounced shift in healthcare from the largely reactive care we see today to more proactive care. Instead of waiting to treat patients only once they show symptoms or when it’s too late, physicians will be able to identify and start addressing problems at earlier stages, when survival rates and positive outcomes are at their highest.

Moreover, rather than providing patients generalized, one-size-fits-all treatment plans, physicians will have the tools and technology to help them identify the best treatment plan for each individual patient. As a result, there will be reduced trial-and-error for doctors when identifying the right medications or treatment combinations for their patients, fewer adverse effects for patients, and a lower overall cost of healthcare.

Additionally, pharmaceutical companies will be able to develop better drugs. Today, it’s estimated that 90% of top-selling blockbuster medicines only work for 30-50% of patients. Worse still, the side effects and adverse reactions for these drugs account for 30% of acute hospital admissions each year.

Precision medicine, on the other hand, can study the DNA of different diseases, providing researchers a better understanding of the molecular effects of genetic variation, ultimately helping them develop drugs to target these specific mutations or variations.

The promise of creating better, more effective blockbuster drugs is incredibly alluring to big pharma, and the industry has been betting heavily on this promise. In fact, leading pharma companies have nearly doubled their investments in precision medicine over the last five years, and these investments are expected to increase by one-third over the next five years.

Companies with potential

Pharmaceutical companies aren’t alone in trying to harness precision medicine’s potential. Hundreds of startups have entered the space to try to become market leaders while also making a truly remarkable impact in healthcare. Below we highlight two of our favorites:


Ourotech, an SU portfolio company,  is working to help doctors identify the best drugs for breast cancer. To do this, the company takes a patient’s cancer cells and grows them in proprietary synthetic gels to test them against a combination of cancer treatments.

Today, the normal approach is for doctors to first test if a patient’s breast cancer is present or absent for HER2 or HER3. This protein dictates which of the 30 FDA-approved cancer treatments should be prioritized. The problem with this methodology is that it’s not patient-specific, and because each treatment involves administering at least 3-6 different drugs over a one-year period, it could take doctors months to know if they’ve made the correct choice.

By growing a patient’s cancer cells in its synthetic gels and subjecting the cells to different cancer treatments, however, Ourotech hopes to be able to more accurately determine the treatment combination that will work best for a particular patient.

The company is in the midst of the FDA approval process, but pharmaceutical companies are already using Ourotech’s tests to get early indications of the effectiveness of their promising oncology drugs. The company also plans to expand beyond breast cancer and are considering colorectal and brain cancers as the next areas of focus.


GRAIL, a spin-off of sequencing company Illumina, focuses on detecting cancer at its earliest stages (stages I and II, where survival rates are the highest). The company’s view is that cancer can be detected with DNA shed by tumors in the bloodstream. To enable this detection, the company is building intelligent models to surface clinically-actionable insights from vast amounts of tumor genome data obtained through high-intensity sequencing.

If GRAIL succeeds, one sample of blood can be sequenced and screened for cancer DNA, catching the disease before it becomes a full-blown problem.

The company recently launched its first multi-center clinical trial, called the Circulating Cell-Free Genome Atlas study. The goal is to analyze blood samples from 10,000 participants (7,000 cancer patients and 3,000 controls) to build a detailed reference library for what normal blood looks like, along with different types of cancer types and stages. GRAIL has also started recruiting for large clinical trials, including one that plans to enroll 120,000 women to validate a test to detect breast cancer.

The company is betting big on its “holy grail” cancer detection test, raising over $1 billion to date from high-profile investors and big pharma, including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Amazon, Johnson & Johnson, and Merck.

Sources include: Nature, Forbes, Fortune, Science, TechCrunch