Any expectant parent knows that preeclampsia—a kind of high blood pressure during pregnancy—is a dreaded possibility. It can be fatal for mother and baby, and it can be difficult to diagnose.
Matthew Cooper (pictured) knows the danger all too well, nearly losing his wife to the condition in 2005. Seven years later, he started a company, Carmenta Bioscience, to build a preeclampsia diagnostic that would use a blood sample, replacing the judgment call a doctor must make based on several factors including hypertension and protein in the mother’s urine.
The test is not yet available, but Carmenta has made so much progress that prenatal testing company Progenity of San Diego isn’t waiting any longer. It has bought Carmenta for an undisclosed sum three years after Cooper launched it. Progenity, formerly known as Ascendant MDX, offers a variety of prenatal tests. Its executive chairman is Harry Stylli, a life sciences industry veteran and controversial figure in San Diego.
It’s likely a small deal, dollar-wise, but in the right hands the test could have a big impact. About 500,000 babies die every year from preeclampsia, 10,500 of them in the U.S. Many other babies survive but are delivered pre-term; preeclampsia is responsible for as much as 20 percent of preterm births. The condition is also the cause of 13 percent of all maternal deaths worldwide, and 18 percent in the U.S., according to statistics gathered by the Preeclampsia Foundation.
Cooper, who will stay on as Progenity’s chief scientific officer, says the test could be used early in pregnancy to help mothers at risk for preeclampsia take preventive measures. Or it could be used later in pregnancy, when preeclampsia is suspected, to separate the true cases from the false alarms. “We’re able to distinguish preeclampsia from less sinister conditions, such as chronic hypertension,” says Cooper.
More accurate diagnosis would reduce the number of unnecessary preterm births that occur when doctors, not wanting to take chances, decide to deliver the baby.
Which route Carmenta—and now Progenity—will take with the test isn’t clear. Cooper says data from an ongoing clinical trial will help steer the best use of the product. “We’re still investigating where the power of this test is,” says Cooper, who has also had stints as a scientist at Roche and Biogen. “Whichever claims the data enable, that’s what we’ll do.”
The test is likely to be marketed as a central service, in which doctors send samples to an offsite lab. Such services require state-by-state approval, but not FDA approval.
Carmenta is based in Palo Alto, CA, on technology spun out of Stanford. Its cofounder is Atul Butte, a pediatrician and bioinformatics expert who recently moved from Stanford to the University of California, San Francisco to run an ambitious big-data driven health initiative for the entire UC health system.
Butte and Stanford researcher Bruce Ling, whose lab works at the crossroads of bioinformatics and diagnostics, pinpointed a set of proteins in mothers’ blood that, when present, are an indicator of preeclampsia.
Carmenta was nurtured along with $2 million in seed funding from biotech venture capitalist Camille Samuels and the Bay Area’s Life Science Angels group, and spent time as part of the Stanford University-affiliated StartXMed accelerator program. It is the second of 25 companies in the program to reach an exit. Carmenta never needed a round of venture funding, with Cooper as its only full time employee.
Life Science Angels is a grassroots network of investors, many of whom have biomedical experience. Angel groups in recent years have grown in sophistication and resources, now and then financing biotech startups past the $10 million mark without help from more traditional venture backers.
Samuels, who joined the Carmenta board, says she first met Cooper on a conference panel. After a pitch from him, she invested in the seed round.
Cooper based Carmenta on the “Lean Launchpad” startup method popularized by author Steve Blank in the tech world; Cooper says he pushed Blank to apply the method to life science startups after taking Blank’s entrepreneurship class at the University of California, Berkeley business school. Based on Blank’s efforts, the National Institutes of Health is now running I-Corps, a pilot program for startup-minded researchers.
While Cooper and Progenity declined to discuss the deal terms, Cooper did say he was impressed enough by Progenity that he took their offer even though it wasn’t the most lucrative.
The deal is also somewhat of a resurfacing for Progenity executive chairman Stylli, who was fired from his previous diagnostics company, Sequenom, amid accusations of mishandling data related to a Down syndrome test. He helped Progenity, when it was Ascendant MDX, raise $13.5 million privately, according to a 2013 regulatory filing.
Cooper says he was well aware of Stylli’s history going into talks with Progenity and did a “tremendous amount of due diligence,” more than he did on any other prospective buyers, because of the “yellow flags.”
“I came to the decision that these are people I want to work with,” he says. “There’s stuff you read in papers and on blogs, and then there’s stuff people, even previous critics, tell you, that things happen for a number of different reasons. You can’t believe everything you read.”
Stylli was not available for comment. A Progenity spokeswoman declined to discuss the deal terms.