Prenatal Testing Firm Cradle Genomics Debuts With $17M, Illumina Ties

Xconomy San Diego — 

Another company headed by former Illumina executives has launched, fueled with a $17 million Series A round from investors including a local venture capital firm.

The new firm, Cradle Genomics, is seeking to commercialize improved non-invasive prenatal tests, which analyze blood from a pregnant person to determine whether a fetus will be born with an atypical genetic makeup. Such tests can, for example, detect an extra copy of chromosome 21, which causes Down syndrome.

The team at Cradle says it plans to use the money it has raised to launch prenatal testing products that it claims will be able to detect genetic abnormalities more comprehensively and earlier in pregnancy—as early as week five—than tests currently in use.

Illumina Ventures and Section 32 co-led the investment, Cradle said.

The company is based in San Diego and has additional research and development operations in Detroit on the campus of of Wayne State University, where the technology Cradle uses was invented. Randy Armant, the company’s co-founder and vice president of research, is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Wayne State; he is listed as an inventor on the company’s patents, according to Cradle.

Tristan Orpin, CEO of Cradle, is a former Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) executive. He spent 14 years at the San Diego-based DNA sequencing giant in a variety of roles, including stints as chief commercial officer and as head of Illumina’s clinical genomics group. Other past career stops include Sequenom and Bio-Rad Laboratories (NYSE: BIO).

Cradle’s other founders are Sascha Drewlo, its vice president of development, and Richard Shippy, its vice president of commercial operations. Shippy was formerly senior director of strategic product marketing for Illumina’s reproductive and genetic health team.

Another Illumina veteran, head of corporate and business development Jeff Eidel, joined the company this month. Cradle wouldn’t say how many people the company now employs.

In recent years, during the first trimester of a pregnancy, it’s become more common for someone who’s expecting to undergo non-invasive prenatal tests to assess the likelihood a fetus will be born with certain genetic abnormalities. These tests are conducted using blood taken from a pregnant person. The screen looks for what’s known as cell-free fetal DNA—pieces of a fetus’s genetic material that circulate in maternal blood. Cradle says its proprietary assay increases the purity of fetal DNA, which is intended to circumvent obstacles presented by the relatively low fraction of the material in maternal blood, according to the company.

The funds will also go toward clinical development, corporate infrastructure, and clinical lab testing operations, the company says.

Foster City, CA-based Illumina Ventures, one of Cradle’s lead investors, began as the corporate venture arm of the San Diego company, but now invests independently. The other lead investment firm, Section 32, is headed by Bill Maris, who started Google Ventures (GV) during his tenure at the Bay Area tech giant before he relocated and launched his own fund in the San Diego community of Cardiff-by-the-Sea.

Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Sea Lane Ventures, Listwin Ventures, and Axon Ventures also participated in the investment.

The San Diego region has a history of innovation in the field of non-invasive prenatal testing. It is home to a number of companies that offer such screenings, including Illumina; Sequenom, which was acquired by Burlington, NC-based diagnostics giant LabCorp (NYSE: LH) in 2016; and Progenity, which was started by Sequenom’s former CEO.

San Carlos, CA-based Natera (NASDAQ: NTRA) also offers genetic tests for pregnant people; It began doing so about six years ago, entering the fray of companies developing less-risky detection methods of fetal health. (Two other common prenatal tests, amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, carry a small risk of miscarriage.) Another company, San Jose, CA-based Ariosa Diagnostics, was acquired by Roche in 2014.