LunaDNA, Vivid & More: The Xconomy Awards San Diego Startup Finalists

Xconomy San Diego — 

The finalists in the Startup category of San Diego’s Xconomy Awards (and other categories) show how much data security and privacy have become not just top public concerns but also the priorities of a growing number of companies. Other Startup finalists are taking various approaches to making precision medicine a reality for more patients. Here are brief introductions to the finalists.

This is part of a series of articles profiling the Xconomy Awards San Diego finalists. See our profiles of the finalists in the CEO, Commitment to Diversity, Innovation at the Intersection and Digital Trailblazer categories. Winners will be announced at the Awards Gala on May 29.

CureMatch wants to make precision medicine more precise. In cancer, for example, new immunotherapies are wildly effective in a minority of patients, but it’s still often not clear who will benefit until they receive the treatment. Spun out of UC San Diego, CureMatch analyzes the genetic profile of a patient’s tumor and finds a cancer drug, or a combination, to try—and flags those that aren’t likely to work. The drugs in question could be immunotherapies, targeted therapies that address a specific mutation, or warhorse chemotherapies. CureMatch is at heart a bioinformatics company (it is also a finalist in the Digital Trailblazer category); it doesn’t do its own lab testing, relying instead on third parties to provide a DNA readout from tumor biopsies or blood samples. At least one corporate drug maker is intrigued; French firm Servier has inked a license agreement with CureMatch.

Expansion Therapeutics
One could say that the impetus for Expansion, which has attracted more than $50 million in venture funding, comes from an eastern expansion beyond San Diego. That’s because the key research behind the startup’s drug discovery plans took place in the lab of Matthew Disney at the Scripps Research Institute’s Florida campus, which opened more than a decade ago. Expansion is developing small molecules to disrupt the activity of certain types of disease-causing RNA molecules. The firm’s name, however, comes not from the Scripps geographic expansion but from a group of at least 30 genetic disorders caused by the expansion, or repetition, of certain sequences within a DNA segment. Expansion will first go after myotonic dystrophy type 1, the most common type of adult-onset muscular dystrophy. The startup is developing drugs that bind to the mutant RNA linked to the disease and restore its normal function.

The slogan “Information wants to be free” was coined in the early days of the digital revolution. These days, citizens are having second thoughts about that concept, especially with the growing reams of genetic and health information being digitized and monetized by companies like 23andMe. LunaDNA, in Solana Beach, is one of a new generation of companies looking to compile vast amounts of health data to benefit medical research, but with a twist.

Contributors to the LunaDNA database control their own de-identified data via blockchain technology, only sharing with the company’s customers when they see fit, and sharing in the rewards as well. LunaDNA launched in 2017 with its own digital currency as compensation, but it has dropped that idea in favor of swapping company equity for data contributions. There are other models out there; Nebula Genomics hands out credits, for example. To stand out from the growing crowd, LunaPBC, LunaDNA’s parent company, has organized as a public benefit corporation.

Luna has raised $4 million from Arch Venture Partners, Illumina Ventures, and others. Several key Luna members, including president and founder Dawn Barry, were previously at Illumina. [Editor’s note: Dawn Barry is a judge of the Xconomy Awards San Diego but she did not judge the Startup category.]

Underlining the high stakes of healthcare and data convergence, Medcrypt is our second startup finalist focused on privacy and security (it is also a finalist in the Innovation at the Intersection category). The Encinitas firm makes security software for medical devices, which are increasingly wireless and connected—and that means hackable. Pacemakers, glucose pumps and monitors, and much more are now part of digital health. It sounds like a far-fetched thriller, but there are real worries about hackers causing heart attacks via pacemaker, or other bodily interventions from afar. Medcrypt says it can secure a device with just a single line of code. It also provides remote monitoring that alerts companies about potential security threats. Their business, backed by $3 million in seed funding from Eniac Ventures and others, has become more in demand thanks to ongoing FDA requirements that device makers address cybersecurity threats.

Vivid Genomics
Vivid is taking full advantage of biotech’s new world of nurturing startups and founders. The diagnostics company is part of JLabs in San Diego, one of several incubation sites run by Johnson & Johnson around the world. Vivid has also gotten help from a local accelerator, Ad Astra Ventures (a finalist in the Commitment to Diversity category), which gives female founders several weeks of coursework and a $20,000 investment. Vivid CEO and founder Julie Collens was an executive at Illumina.

She and her team are developing blood tests that drug companies use to recruit patients to clinical trials in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. The idea is to identify people much more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, for example, or predict who will have amyloid plaques in their brains. Because Alzheimer’s, in particular, takes so long to progress, drug developers have had to test their experimental products on people already showing clear signs of disease—which, failure after failure in clinical development is showing us, is too late. Vivid is one of many companies racing to find a reliable way, either from blood tests, voice patterns, eye-tracking movements, or by other means, to design better clinical trials and ultimately find a treatment for one of our most dire and confounding medical situations.