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3 Life Science Startups Join San Diego’s Ad Astra Accelerator

Xconomy San Diego — 

Three San Diego life science startups have been selected to go through the Ad Astra Ventures accelerator program, a relatively new addition to the San Diego scene.

Ad Astra, which means “to the stars” in Latin, was founded this year by three local entrepreneurs and investors interested in bolstering the efforts of women-led companies. Earlier this year it graduated its first cohort, which consisted of three companies in the consumer product and software sectors. Its second program, which gets underway this month, was tailored for life science companies.

The program says its primary differentiator from other startup programs in town—such as Connect’s Springboard—is its curriculum, which was designed specifically for female entrepreneurs, and its network of accomplished women.

In addition to 12 weeks of coursework, each woman-led company accepted into the Ad Astra program receives a $20,000 investment. The accelerator was started by investors Silvia Mah, who heads the Sorrento Valley-based accelerator Hera Labs: Allison Long Pettine, a founder of angel group Seed San Diego; and Vidya Dinamani, formerly with Intuit and Mitchell International.

“Our goal at the end of 12 weeks is to fully equip the founders to build investable companies and become strong leaders,” Dinamani said.

In exchange for the investment, Ad Astra takes a 3 to 5 percent equity stake in each company.

High-profile accelerators such as Y Combinator, in the Bay Area, and Techstars, founded in Boulder, CO, also provide funds in exchange for equity. But there are few such programs in San Diego that offer funding for startups.

Springboard, one of the region’s best known incubation programs, doesn’t offer funding (or take equity). Another incubator, EvoNexus, recently began requiring that companies chosen for the program give up equity stakes of 1 to 5 percent to participate. It doesn’t offer funding in exchange, although its corporate sponsors, including Qualcomm, occasionally offer seed funding to companies that are accepted into the program.

The founders participating in Ad Astra’s fall cohort are:

Kate Dilligan, of Cooler Heads: The Stanford University graduate and former vice president of neural technology startup KnuEdge is developing products for cancer patients, including a cooling cap to reduce hair loss. Dilligan was the winner of San Diego Startup Week’s “pedicab pitch,” in which founders were challenged to pitch to investors while being wheeled around downtown.

Debbie Chen, of Hydrostasis: The former imaging/data scientist at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute is developing a personalized hydration monitor to help athletes reach and maintain peak performance. Chen graduated from a Hera Labs’ 12-week Scale Intensive program in spring.

Julie Collens, of Vivid Genomics: Collens, who has experience in genomics, molecular diagnostics, and life science tools, is developing non-invasive tools to identify underlying neurodegenerative disease pathologies, drug response, progression rate, and tools to facilitate on-target enrollment for clinical trials.