I have often been asked: “Are we entering a technological revolution in healthcare?”
Biotech is certainly not new. But as industries continue to expand their integration of deep tech – AI/ML, robotics, semiconductor-related technologies, intelligent imaging, to name just a few – we’re now seeing a deliberate application of these technologies to entire biological workflows and systems in a way that has never been done before. The integration of high-tech advancements into biotech R&D is driving rapid improvements in how we do things like develop new diagnostics systems and discover drugs. As a result, we’re not just seeing new drugs – we’re innovating entirely new drug discovery systems.
This merging of advanced engineering, computational sciences, physics and biology is called bioconvergence. It is the next evolution of biotech, asking the question: How can we continue making unprecedented improvements in medicine and fundamentally transform the way we approach healthcare?
Not surprisingly, this is driving a lot of interest from investors. It’s a large and fast-growing market that’s primed for transformation, which is an exciting prospect for any investor. But, from our perspective at Celesta, investing in bioconvergence is about a much broader picture as well.
As deep tech investors, we view our role as two-fold: investing in foundational technologies at the frontiers of innovation; and ensuring those technologies successfully make it to market as the next generation of products that will transform established systems and impact how we live.
Where is there a greater need or a higher impact potential than within healthcare?
Revolutionizing Drug Discovery
Anyone who has lived on this planet the last few years will likely agree that it currently takes too long to find solutions to big healthcare challenges.
This pace of drug discovery is of particular interest to the public, now in our third year living with COVID-19. People now understand that health threats emerging on the other side of the world can rapidly affect every one of us.
Through current systems, it can take 10-12 years and up to $1 billion for new medication to reach patients, with these development costs driving up prices for the public. For diabetes patients, new insulin treatments can cost up to $300 a vial, with 2-3 doses needed a month.
At Celesta, we’ve closely followed the need for healthcare transformation, particularly in drug discovery, long before the pandemic. And we’ve worked to lay the groundwork for improved drug discovery by bringing visionary deep tech investors together with pioneering companies working in this space.
In 2014, we invested in a promising new company, Berkeley Lights, that was taking the first steps in revolutionizing drug discovery, leveraging semiconductor technology and advancements in automation, imaging and micro-fluidics. Using its groundbreaking opto-electropositioning (OEP) technology to automate and optimize cell biology workflows, Berkeley Lights is able to drastically reduce the cell discovery process that would normally take years.
Having deep technical and operational knowledge in high-tech, including semiconductor technologies, imaging and systems engineering, our team at Celesta could see that the technical approach of Berkeley Lights would indeed support their vision. The potential was and still is enormous.
Anywhere there is a lack of access to affordable and quality healthcare can ultimately impact us everywhere. Investment in bioconvergence is one way to help find and advance the technologies that can be applied to solve these big problems.
Then in 2021, we broadened our investment into revolutionizing drug discovery with Prellis Biologics. Prellis has leveraged high-tech advancements including holographic (3D) printing technology, semiconductor-related technologies and material science to develop a platform that creates synthetic tissue to replicate the human immune response system. Prellis has demonstrated that antibody discovery which normally takes 9-12 months with animal models can be reduced to only 16 days. Not to mention this system eliminates the need for animal testing.
Again, the foundational technologies being leveraged by Prellis were familiar to me and my colleagues at Celesta so we understood the capabilities but we did not, yet, know much about printing synthetic human lymph nodes. We did, however, understand how the technology underpinning the product could take them where they wanted to go. We recently expanded our investment in Prellis by leading its Series C round, along with other supportive investors and we are very excited about the benefits this technology will bring to the healthcare industry.
Our support for Berkeley Lights and Prellis illustrates how we think about deep tech investment overall – enabling the engineering, productizing, and commercializing of new technology applications that drive transformation of established systems in higher and higher degrees of magnitude over time.
Incremental Steps Toward Bold Visions
Drug discovery is just one area where change is needed to increase affordable, quality access to healthcare. But there are many other opportunities for bioconvergence to bring about improvements in much higher degrees of magnitude than we’ve seen so far.
Molecular imaging is another huge area of potential. Atonarp is a company leveraging a new molecular imaging tool to change medical diagnostics. You may have heard of an optical spectrometer if you’ve watched forensic shows – it essentially uses lasers to collect molecular signatures from scattered light over a sample protein, such as a biological fluid. That’s the established technology.
But what if you could shine a laser on your hand and analyze molecular composition better and faster without needing to draw any blood at all?
This is a game changing concept that Atonarp is developing, merging advanced optical systems and lasers with AI/ML and software that could quantify, analyze, characterize, and report the results of molecular signatures without needing to draw any biological fluids. Imagine what this kind of real-time results for a dialysis patient could mean for more personalized treatment decisions, better patient outcomes, improved patient satisfaction, and reduced costs.
Hugely compelling, but also carrying the risks of market adoption and viability of the technology for that application. The Celesta team recognized that Atonarp had a great deal of potential, but was far from this moonshot goal.
From our experience and knowledge in the complicated and multi-faceted process of bringing new medical technology to market, we understood that Atonarp would need to take development of the technology step-by-step. They needed time to continue developing their core technology.
So, as those capabilities were in development, we worked with them to identify opportunities to integrate their existing tech into other applications that could prove its viability. We first identified a less complex use case in pharmaceutical manufacturing operations – lyophilization, or turning powder into pills. We then turned to process control in advanced semiconductor manufacturing, successfully introducing Atonarp’s gas-monitoring mass spectrometry product as a tool to help chipmakers better monitor their intricate and delicate fabrication processes.
All of these were necessary stepping stones, helping Atonarp to build valuable knowledge and capital on its path to the bold vision of non-invasive molecular diagnostics.
Investing in Healthcare for All
When taking a global lens on patient care, the scale of the need is staggering. Half of the world doesn't have access to basic, essential healthcare. In the U.S., one in four people reportedly skip essential medical care because of the cost.
As a venture firm, we are of course interested in helping to scale successful companies and return value to our investors. Within our bioconvergence portfolio though, we have the additional opportunity to radically improve the productivity of healthcare and ultimately raise the quality of patient care.
Take the potential impact of telemedicine. We’ve only scratched the surface of how telemedicine can improve healthcare delivery and management for the general public. Today, telemedicine serves largely as an added convenience for those who already have access to healthcare. But how can telemedicine be revolutionized to become a true virtual healthcare system?
Connect & Heal, a Celesta investment, is doing its part in this revolution by disrupting today’s fragmented care delivery system with a new tech-enabled care management delivery platform, enabling end-to-end continuous care for patients. We’re excited to see the impact of this technology.
The pandemic has reminded us all that we are a global community. Anywhere there is a lack of access to affordable and quality healthcare can ultimately impact us everywhere.
Investment in bioconvergence is one way to help find and advance the technologies that can be applied to solve these big problems. The key thing to remember for investors in this space is to identify the technologies and teams with the highest impact potential, and to offer support in every way you can – financial, operational, technical, commercial, regulatory – to help make them successful.
The technological revolution is a journey in and of itself, one to which there is no end. It will continue for as long as people are on the planet. We at Celesta feel immense gratitude and responsibility in the opportunity to help spur development of technologies that will enable continued advancement and positive change – in human health and beyond.