Avro aims to deliver drugs to children and the elderly through skin patches

Avro, a life sciences startup in Y Combinator’s current batch, is banking on a method to deliver medications to populations unable to swallow or chew — It will administer them through the skin.

Starting with allergy medications, the startup is developing skin patches that release drugs commonly used in seasonal allergies for children. The patches act much like nicotine patches, which deliver nicotine to those trying to quit smoking, but can deliver a variety of drugs, such as allergy medications, through our body’s largest organ.

Co-founder Shakir Lakhani, who suffers from both seasonal and food allergies himself, tells TechCrunch he wanted to start with allergy relief not just for personal reasons but because its an area where children are resistant to taking the medications already out there.

“There’s medications that say they taste like banana but don’t really taste like banana, ” he said. “The drugs are also relatively safe so it’s something we can work with without being too worried.”

It’s also not the first company to offer transdermal drug delivery. Miami-based pharmaceutical company ProSolus creates skin patches for delivery of various generic drugs and over-the-counter products, Fremont outfit Zosano makes specialty transdermal patches for delivery of migraine-reducing medicines and Viaskin is making a patch for kids with peanut allergies — though clinical trials have so far not gone well.

These companies could easily start offering the same types of patches as Avro, should the startup prove the market need.

One advantage is that the drugs Avro wants to use in its patches are already out there — it wouldn’t need to prove they work. They just need to prove the delivery method is safe and effective.

But the startup has a long way to go before getting these patches into the hands of consumers. First, Avro will need FDA approval to sell in the United States and Canada, where the company plans to market its patches. To get there, it will need to conduct some human clinical trials, which Lakhani says he’s in the process of looking into at the moment but believes he’ll be able to get up and running in Q3 of this year.

Lakhani also mentioned his skin patches could eventually offer other types of medicines.

“We’re looking at things like people suffering from near degenerative diseases and more intense diseases that inhibit your ability to swallow like Multiple Sclerosis,” he told TechCrunch. “I think those will be really interesting avenues for us to go down in the future and we’re just starting to initiate conversations with other companies who might be good partners for us.”

RightEye’s portable eye-tracking test catches concussions and reading problems in five minutes

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but physiologically speaking, they’re really windows to the brain.

RightEye looks through that window to detect common but often subtle vision issues resulting from concussions and other brain troubles. Its quick, portable eye-tracking station can tell in minutes whether you should see a doctor — or look into becoming a pro ball player.

It turns out there’s quite a lot you can tell from how someone’s eyes move. We may not notice it ourselves, but we all vary in how and how well we execute a number of basic tasks, from flicking our eyes back and forth to smoothly tracking a moving target. For instance, your eyes may over-correct, fail to line up correctly, or track up or down when moving along a straight line.

For healthy individuals, these variations fall within a safe range, just part of the ordinary differences between bodies. But certain patterns well outside the baseline can be strong indicators of things like concussions and eye muscle problems — and even Parkinson’s and Autism-spectrum conditions.

RightEye tracks these movements with a custom device that looks a bit like an all-in-one desktop; it uses a Tobii eye-tracking module built into a single-purpose computer loaded with a library of simple tests. A basic EyeQ (as they call it) test takes five minutes or so, with more specialized tests adding only a few more, and results are available immediately.

To give you an idea: one test in game form has you defending a space station, destroying incoming ships by looking at them. But certain colored ships you must not destroy — meaning you have to detect them in your peripheral vision and avoid looking at them. In another test, you flick your eyes rapidly between two targets appearing on opposite sides of the screen, demonstrating accuracy and functioning saccades (micro-corrections made by your eye muscles).

Each eye is tracked independently, and their performance as a matched pair is evaluated instantly. An easy-to-understand results sheet shows their actual movements and how (if at all) they deviate from the baseline.

It’s compact and can run on battery for some 8 hours, making it ideal for deployment outside hospitals or the like: anywhere from school nurse’s office to the sidelines of an NFL game, even in the home.

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I tested the device out myself at CES (my vision is just OK, but I want a rematch), and later chatted with Barbara Barclay, RIghtEye’s President. The two most exciting applications of the technology, as judged by her enthusiasm anyway, are in identifying vision-related cognitive problems in kids and in creating a sort of eye fitness test for sporting persons.

Say a child is having trouble learning to read, or perhaps can’t pay attention in class. The immediate thought these days is frequently ADD. But it’s more than a little possible that it’s a vision problem. A subtle difference in how the eyes track, perhaps one going off the horizontal when tracking a line of text, could easily make reading on the page or blackboard frustrating or even painful. What 3rd-grade kid would keep at it?

A reading-focused test tracks how the eyes move along a line of text.

This isn’t some groundbreaking new idea — but reliably and objectively evaluating individual eye movements was only something you could do if you went to see a specialist, perhaps after other explanations for a behavior didn’t pan out. RightEye’s test practically runs itself and can detect or eliminate the possibility of vision problems in minutes. Honestly, I think a kid might even find it fun.

Barclay has personal experience with this, her own daughter having had health issues that only after multiple false starts were found to have their root in a relatively simple vision problem the system indicated.

In 2016, RightEye acquired the rights to a pair of tests based on research linking eye movement patterns to Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as Autism spectrum conditions. It’s not a magic bullet, but again, the quick and easy nature of the tests make them ideal for routine screening.

The Autism spectrum test is for children aged only 1 to 3, and watches eye movements between images of people and images of geometric shapes. Lingering on the shapes more than the people, it turns out, is a good indicator that at the very least the kid should receive further testing.

The Parkinson’s and Huntington’s tests watch for the more well understood patterns that accompany the motor degeneration found in those afflictions. They can be administered to people of any age and have (using earlier eye-tracking setups) contributed to many identifications of the diseases.

On a very different, but perhaps more immediately remunerative, note, Barclay told me that the test also works as a way to find outliers on the other end: people with what amounts to super-vision.

It’s entirely possible that someone could take the test and their results will show that they have faster, more accurate saccades, quicker target acquisition, and better continuous object tracking than the baseline. That’s a heck of an asset to have if you’re batting, fielding, goalkeeping, playing tight end — pretty much anything, really.

Examples of a healthy eye movement report (left) and concussed one (right).

It’s also a heck of an asset to have if you’re a scout or coach. If Lopez is catching great on the left side of the field but not the right, you can look into the possibility that he’s having trouble tracking the ball when looking over his left shoulder, his eyes all the way to the right.

Not only that, but you can test for effects of concussions or other traumas right there on the field if they’re having trouble. Given how widespread such injuries are and the immense danger of repeated concussions, testing early and often could literally save lives.

Right now, Barclay told me, 7 MLB teams are using RightEye tech for player assessments. As for the medical side of things, she said the company currently has 200 clients. The new hardware should help boost that number.

Perhaps more importantly, it has the backing (and therefore clout) of VSP, the country’s largest vision insurance company. That’s both a tremendous vote of confidence and a major in — nothing gets people using a system faster than knowing it’s covered by their existing insurance.

With $250 million, Peter Diamandis’ new startup is all about taking stem cells from placentas

Stem cells derived from a human placenta hold the key to unlocking a myriad of potentials in regenerative medicine and are the focus of X-Prize and Singularity University founder Peter Diamandis’ new endeavor.

Called Celularity, the startup is a spinout from Celgene, a global biopharmaceutical company creating gene therapies. Diamandis teamed up with Dr. Robert Hariri, the founder of Celgene, to create Celularity in the hopes of using stem cells found in the human placenta to quickly regenerate tissue and organs needed to treat cancer and other diseases. The idea is these types of cells can do a better job of helping us live longer, fuller, healther lives in the future.

It’s a wild proposal and, seemingly, the stuff of science fiction often tossed around in certain Silicon Valley circles — create a startup focused on a medical breakthrough to make us live forever — or at least much, much longer than we currently do. But stem cell technology has been around for some time.

Lab worker with human stem cells.

For decades stem cells have posed an ethical quandary as they’ve largely been harvested through discarded embryos. However, in just the last few years, science has discovered adult stem cells can come from a number of sources throughout the human body — including a woman’s placenta, shortly after giving birth.

Placental stem cells are even more important as they can be taken from any placenta and injected into any human without the risk of the body rejecting them, according to the company. And, because they are so abundant, treatments are potentially more affordable and can begin immediately.

But this is not the first time Diamandis has dipped his toe in longevity research. He cofounded Human Longevity Inc. in 2014 to focus on extending the human lifespan. Celularity extends his interests in this endeavor.

So far, the startup has conducted several clinical trials and treated “hundreds” of patients, Hariri tells TechCrunch. The next step is to try and gain FDA approval to roll these treatments out on a mass scale.

That approval may be just around the corner — possibly in the next 12-24 months, according to Hariri. That’s because “cellular medicine is intrinsically safe,” he says, adding the potential could have a “huge impact” on U.S. medicine.

So just how are Diamandis and Hariri obtaining these human placentas? Donations. Though some couples choose to keep (and later eat) their placental afterbirth, approximately four million human placentas are disposed of per year in U.S. hospitals.

While this strange, yet magical temporary organ is from a human mother, some states consider it to be a biohazard after birth and discard it as waste. Couples, by law, therefore cannot take and sell the tissue to Celularity or some other outfit hoping to use it up. But they can donate it.

That’s where Celularity comes in. The startup procures the placental tissue from hospitals willing to hand over would-be waste in the name of science.

Right now the field is pretty wide for Celularity, too. The company is only competing with a handful of others in the same space like Israeli biotech firm Pluristem. Though it seems to be the only player in the U.S. at the moment.

Add to that a whopping $250 million in new funding from several prominent investors and celebrities to help it grow, including well-known life coach Tony Robbins, John Sculley of Apple and Pepsi-Cola, former GV partner and founder Bill Maris, who now runs a new biotech funding venture Section 32, and Andrew Von Eschenbach, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Naturally, Celgene led the latest round, with cash infusions from United Therapeutics Corporation, Sorrento Therapeutics and Human Longevity, Inc. to boot.

One other big heaping help to the startup — Celularity owns and operates LifeBank USA, the world’s only repository of donated placenta cells and biomaterials. So, presumably, should any other companies want to do something similar in the U.S., they’d need to go through a subsidiary of Celularity first.

Celularity is sure to stay a large player in this field as it continues. It owns the whole chain from procurement to deploying treatments. It also holds 1,800 patents on the procedures.

“Our ultimate mission is to make 100 years old, the new 60, and to provide people with maximal aesthetic, mobility, and cognition as they age,” Diamandis said. “The 20 years of science, research, and intellectual property pioneered by my visionary partner Dr. Bob Hariri, is the cornerstone for the coming longevity revolution.”

Featured Image: BSIP / Contributor/Getty Images

Human sequencing pioneer George Church wants to give you the power to sell your DNA on the blockchain

The blockchain is the buzziest thing on the internet these days and now MIT professor and godfather of the Human Genome Project George Church wants to put your genes on it.

His new startup Nebula Genomics plans to sequence your genome for under $1,000 (the current going rate of whole genome sequencing) and then add your data to the blockchain through the purchase of a “Nebula Token.”

The idea sounds outlandish but Church and his colleagues laid out in a recently released white paper that this will put the genomic power in the hands of the consumer, as opposed to companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, which own your genomic data after you take that spit tube test.

These companies sell that data in large swaths to pharmaceutical and research companies, often for millions of dollars. However, using the blockchain, consumers can choose to sell their own data directly.

Many people have yet to  sequence their data, mostly due to cost or privacy concerns but with the option to then sell that data to drug companies, possibly discover cures for rare diseases and the possibility of making a buck while doing it could sweeten the incentive to sequence.

Those buying up tokens and sequencing their DNA through Nebula don’t have to sell it for money, of course, and Nebula says they can still discover insights about their own genetics through the company app without sharing it elsewhere, if they desire.

However, all bought and sold data will be recorded on the blockchain, which is a technology allowing for the recording of all transactions using a key code known only to the person who holds the information.

Will people go for this new proposition to buy a token, sequence their own data and then sell it directly? Nebula is too new to tell right now. The tokens also aren’t likely to accumulate in value like bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies as they are only redeemable for an individual’s DNA data, which the company has said it will do in partnership with Veritas Genetics, a company Church also co-founded.

Sequencing costs are also likely to drop in the future so a Nebula Token is likely to drop in value as the price goes down. However, as Nebula co-founder Dennis Grishin told Stat News about the announcement, people “will probably be directly and indirectly buying tokens from individuals to resell them to data buyers” to try and make a profit.

A few other startups, like EncrypGen, Luna DNA, and Zenome, have mentioned building platforms where individuals can sell their DNA data as well, though none of them offer whole genome sequencing and folks would need to obtain their data from a third-party source first.

Those interested in buying up tokens and selling their DNA through Nebula will also have to wait a bit. The platform is not open to do so at the moment. However, the company says it should be ready in the next few months.

Featured Image: Rick Friedman / Contributor/Getty Images

Watch what it actually looks like when CRISPR snips a strand of DNA

The CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique is an important concept to know about in these days of biotech advances, but it can be pretty difficult to visualize properly. Is it really like molecular scissors? Where does the DNA go? Is it a big molecule or a small one? Fortunately a group has created a 3D animation of the process that shows it at the molecular level.

You can watch the animation, created by biologists at Russia’s Skoltech Institute and the Visual Science organization, below or at the latter’s website:

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Wonder how accurate it really is? It got the thumbs-up from none other than Jennifer Doudna, one of the people who helped discover and refine CRISPR techniques:

Molecular animations are an essential way to demystify and explain complex biological systems. Through the use of stunning imagery and attention to detail, Visual Science and Skoltech have captured the dynamic mechanisms of CRISPR-Cas proteins and their use as research tools.

These animations were created as part of a “nonprofit education project,” so if you’d like to license, modify, or otherwise use them for educational purposes, go for it.

Featured Image: Visual Science and Skoltech

US-China biotech startup XtalPi lands $15M from Google, Tencent and Sequoia

Google continues to increase its presence in China after it joined Sequoia China and Tencent in a $15 million investment for XtalPi, a U.S.-China biotech firm that uses artificial intelligence and computing to accelerate the development of new drugs.

The search giant remains blocked in China, but that hasn’t stopped it from making a series of moves in recent months. It is opening an AI lab in the country and now it has made a second significant investment in recent months by backing XtalPi, which was founded in 2014 by three Chinese MIT graduates.

The company has 60 staff across offices in Boston, Beijing and Shenzhen. It uses a combination of AI, quantum physics algorithms and cloud computing to predict the structure of drug molecules once they are crystalized, which it turn affects a drug’s stability and other characteristics that determine its chances of making it to market.

Beyond its design focus — which make the drug development process more efficient and accurate for pharma companies — XtalPi also works on drug discovery.

“We believe that algorithmic power is the key to finding smarter, more effective routes for drug research and development, and we are focused on building a computational engine that empowers and expedites pharmaceutical innovation for companies worldwide,” XtalPi co- founder and chairman of the board Dr. Shuhao Frank Wen explained in a statement.

The startup previous raised a $3.7 million Series A round by Tencent in late 2015, prior to that, social network Renren led its seed investment. It counts ZhenFund and FreeS Fund as other investors.

This new round — which takes XtalPi to $20 million from investors to date — will go towards using big data from XtalPi’s high-precision computing platform to develop new computational models. It will also help expand its footprint into new segments in the pharma industry.

XtalPi said it is working on a “prediction-driven research lab” that will combine its R&D with lab technology to get more precise and rounded results and predictions.

The deal is a first collaboration between Google and Tencent since they agreed to a patent agreement last week.

Google backed live-streaming Chushou in December in its first China-based investment since a deal with Mobvoi back in 2015. Beyond its planned AI lab, Google has also opened a small office in Shenzhen. The company operates larger bases in Beijing and Shanghai.

There’s no immediate word on whether the round will see XtalPi work directly with Google and Tencent, both of which have invested significantly in AI, but you’d imagine collaboration is on the horizon at some point.

Featured Image: Getty Images

How MyHeritage found a new business in DNA


t first glance, genealogy may seem like a quiet hobby you take up in your retirement, but it’s also a big industry, with the likes of Ancestry, MyHeritage, Helix and others all vying for new users. You’d think that there isn’t much these companies can do to really differentiate themselves from each other, but they all offer a slightly different spin on the core theme of building family trees.

In the last few years, both Ancestry and MyHeritage also expanded their business with DNA testing services — not to help you find potential health issues but to help you find your relatives and tell you where your family comes from. Unsurprisingly, that’s creating a number of new business opportunities for these companies.

Earlier this month, MyHeritage CEO Gilad Japhet (pictured above) gave us an unusually detailed look at his company’s finances and the success of its DNA service, which launched just before the holiday shopping season of 2016.

The kit, once it has been processed, gives users a detailed view of their ethnicity, which currently breaks down to about 42 regions, with more in the plans as the company gathers more data from its users. MyHeritage can also use this data to discover other relatives on the service who also took the test and who you may not even know.

Over the course of the last year, MyHeritage sold more than 1 million DNA kits, and revenue from DNA sales was $58 million. Combined with $75 million in subscription revenue from MyHeritage’s more traditional genealogy business — which now has more than half a million paying subscribers (who pay an average of $150 per year) — the company had total revenue of $133 million in 2017. That’s up from just over $60 million in 2016. The company’s profit in 2017 was $18.1 million.

During the holiday season alone, MyHeritage sold 400,000 DNA kits, up from the just 36,000 it sold in November and December 2016.

“You can’t put a subscription under the Christmas tree,” Japhet joked and added that the average user currently buys just under two kits — and he hopes that number will hit three to four in the future.

While the DNA sales account for much of the company’s recent growth spurt, it’s worth noting that the company’s subscription business is also growing between 30 and 40 percent year over year, with a retention rate of more than 75 percent.

The two products also reinforce each other, given that those who buy DNA kits often convert to paying MyHeritage users and because its existing user base comprises people who would be most interested in using one of the company’s kits. Current conversion rates for DNA kit users are in the double digits, Japhet tells me — and that makes sense, given that you need a family tree to make the most out of the data.

When the company launched its DNA service in 2016, it was faced with a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Unless you have a lot of data already, after all, you can’t really tell people where their ancestors came from — but unless you can do that, your users aren’t likely to be satisfied with the product. So to kickstart the process, MyHeritage allowed users to both upload existing tests and the company sent free DNA kits to some of its existing users.

“We created a founder population project where we used our family trees to identify families that looked like they had stayed in the same area for a long time,” Japhet explained. It’s the combination of the DNA data and the data in the family trees that then allows the company’s data scientists to build the kind of model that tells you whether your family moved to the U.S. from England or another part of Western Europe.

Japhet openly admits that the first results weren’t all that great, because, while the company could match you with direct relatives, it had issues once you hit fourth cousins and similar distant relations. In addition, the service still didn’t have all that much data and it hadn’t yet invested in building out its DNA and data science teams.

Since then, the company went from 310 to 420 employees over the last year and many of them are part of the company’s science team. “DNA is hard and it’s attracting good talent,” Japhet told me. “We built a very strong science team with the purpose of innovating and building the algorithms.”

Now that this team is in place, it’s also working on building new products. Recently, MyHeritage has started to run surveys, for example, that will allow the company to link its DNA data with other traits like a person’s eye color or whether they are right- or left-handed. Its users have already answered more than 4 million questions.