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Startups

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Startups have played a substantial role in driving competition, enabling economic disruption, and introducing new trends into the market. 

With cutting-edge technologies, market-friendly ideas, and strategic innovation, several startups have beat well-entrenched brands in the market, creating massive value and impact in their target markets.

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The Madrid Innovation Driven Ecosystem (MIDE) platform, focused on promoting the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in the Spanish capital, announced the startups that will participate in its third international Bootcamp . In the list of the 16 that make up this group, there are four Mexican startups , whose projects will compete with others from Chile, Peru and, of course, Spain.

MIDE vía Twitter

“This is the first time that MIDE opens the program to the participation of new countries in Latin America, in addition to Mexico, and also to Madrid startups ,” the platform said in a statement.

The selected projects belong to the Health, Foodtech, Fintech, Mobility, Industry 4.0 and Infrastructure sectors.

What is the Madrid Innovation Driven Ecosystem (MIDE) bootcamp about?

Participating startups will enter a free intensive training with international specialists and specialized mentoring from September 13 to 21.

This training is oriented towards growth through internationalization , as the sixteen startups advance in their projects. Ultimately, six of them will be chosen to perform at an open Pitch Session on September 21.

Later, from September 22 to October 8, meetings will be held between the best startups in the program and various companies and institutions, both Spanish and Latin American. The purpose is to connect entrepreneurs and businessmen “to explore synergies and business opportunities,” they explain.

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Mexican pride

The four Mexican startups that got their pass to the third Intercational Bootcamp of the MIDE in Spain are:

  • Agroware. It helps modernize agricultural businesses with user-friendly and user-friendly software to manage management, production, quality control, and traceability.
  • Apphive. Web platform that allows the generation of complex applications, such as delivery platforms with payment tracking, at a fraction of the cost and in less time.
  • Has-IT. IoT platform that allows monitoring processes, reducing losses and improving administration.
  • Logiety. Pioneers in the use of machine learning in the six-digit tariff classification of the WTO harmonized system.

Here is the complete list of the startups that will compete against the representatives of Mexico for a place in the final Pitch session:

Spain

  • COLFEED4Print. CSIC spin-off , dedicated to the manufacture and commercialization of functional filaments for 3D printing.
  • The Most Cute. Leading company in women’s fashion rental.
  • Meep. It offers MaaS solutions that integrate all available modes of transport in a single platform and that allow users to plan, book and pay for multimodal routes.
  • Tantum. Payment platform that integrates the different digital e-wallet solutions in local businesses, online stores, social networks, ecommerce and more.

chili

  • BloomAlert. SaaS platform for oceanographic risk management based on satellite information.
  • Chattigo. It improves the quality of response of companies to their clients through Human Attention and Artificial intelligence applied to ChatBots.
  • Fracttal SPA. Asset maintenance system in the Microsoft Azure and AWS cloud, which allows you to carry all kinds of documentation and traceability of work orders and maintenance plans, information in real time, management of guarantees and documents.
  • Soquimat. Scientific-technological-based company that is developing a smart coating , which incorporates nanoparticles.

Peru

  • Chazki. Platform for the B2B delivery service for those places in Latin America that need to cover last-mile logistics.
  • eBombo. They create virtual activities to enhance entertainment within companies and also manage esports tournaments.
  • Finsmart. Peruvian fintech that unites SMEs in need of liquidity and investors seeking to invest in their receivables (crowdfactoring).
  • FractalUp. All-in-one platform instrumented, flexible and self-configuring in the cloud, responsible from the conservation of knowledge and the identification of talent to real-time supervision.

This bootcamp is a connection initiative of MIDE , in collaboration with its partner TheCUBE and in which institutional partners from the four participating countries participate: the Community of Madrid and the Madrid City Council of Spain; Bancomext and Nafin de México; Utec Ventures, Emprende UP and The Board of Peru, and ProChile of Chile.

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It is essential to leave behind the “it has always been done like this” and nourish yourself with the experiences and learnings of the startup ecosystem.

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May 17, 2021 4 min read

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Startups have been a key element in refocusing industries and markets, thanks to their perspective of challenging the “we have always done it this way” to consider new solutions, which leads to various learnings and experiences: from developing new lines of business, entering new countries, adapt to new cultural approaches until seeking financing.

According to the study of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB): “Large companies, startups and innovation in Latin America. Promises and Challenges ”, one of the features that differentiate Latin American ecosystems from other more developed ones is the low articulation of large companies with the world of entrepreneurship and innovation, which translates into wasting knowledge on the part of new entrepreneurs as well how to create barriers -which should not exist- for the emergence of dynamic enterprises.

That is why -at least for the next few years- it is essential to leave behind the “it has always been done this way” and nourish ourselves with the experiences and learnings of the startup ecosystem, to be able to adapt to a different world than the one we leave in -what seems Already a long time ago- 2020, where trends have strengthened, consumers move faster, it is essential to establish a network of allies with increasingly broad approaches, in addition to a necessary digitization where we guarantee not to lose control of our businesses.

What are the main learnings that traditional businesses can take from the startup approach?

Image: Depositphotos.com

Innovate, innovate and innovate again. It is very easy for a business concept to be “caught up” by the competition. There will always be someone willing to offer the market a cheaper, more comfortable or closer product than yours, so the fundamental thing is to be in constant improvement. One of the main barriers is considering that innovation belongs only to one area of the business or only applies to final products. Innovation is a comprehensive process, in which the entire organization participates and encompasses all critical operational aspects: from processes to delivery of the product or service to the user.

Trust your differentiators (and continually seek to strengthen them). Almost all the entrepreneurs I know are very clear about their source of concern: how to finance the project? One of the learnings we’ve had at Justo is: focus on differentiators. For us, it was a challenge to enter a market dominated by apps to order food delivery.

We change the focus: we want to offer a platform for restaurant owners to have control of the business. With this approach, we were able to be part of the Y Combinator acceleration program and begin our expansion process throughout Latin America.

Explore different paths. Startups have been characterized by telling a story different from the path of traditional entrepreneurship. An example is the search for allies and attracting the interest of investors interested in adding value to the business, beyond capital, as well as entering new markets. In all these aspects, it is essential to investigate and learn about the various laws of each country, in order to highlight the strengths of the projects.

As entrepreneurs, we have the opportunity to have a rapid response approach to the changes that we may observe in our clients, partners and environment. I know it may seem that we are building the plane where we are flying: that is one of the most important learnings: remembering that the constant is to change and adapt.

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In a COVID-impacted world where video communication is the new norm, Vpply is connecting job seekers with companies through a unique video-based job application experience that minimises the need for lengthy CVs and cover letters.

Vpply is a video job platform that allows job seekers to record and upload short videos, providing applicants with the chance to showcase character and people skills.

“The application process starts with a simple job search with filters which will take you to a list of job opportunities on Vpply,” CEO and co-founder Tom Lipczynski told Dynamic Business.

“From there, jobseekers can browse and select jobs they wish to apply for and simply record or upload a pre-recorded video introducing themselves and their interest in the job application.

“After reviewing their application, they can add in their career history and ‘Vpply’ (apply with video).”

The company says employers will also benefit from Vpply’s technology by having a shortened recruitment process and more consistent scheduling of interviews.

It starts with a vision

Vpply co-founders Alex Perry, Tom Lipczynski and James Farrell | Image credit: Tom Lipczynski (supplied)

Co-founders Tom Lipczynski, James Farrell and Alex Perry launched Vpply in July 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with a mission to decrease the mass unemployment being caused.

Tom, who has prior experience working with search giants Indeed and Adzuna, met Alex at a stockbroking firm in 2014. In 2019, James joined the duo and the three of them bonded over their shared business background and passion for video.

Related: 3 mind hacks to help you build your dream business

The founders say the technology behind Vpply was spurred by a lack of human connection in job search and a growing demand for video-based technologies and applications such as Zoom and Google Meet.

Studies show that video now accounts for more than 80% of all online traffic and is 1,200% more likely to be shared online than text or images.

“The shift to video as an everyday tool is already here accelerated by the global pandemic,” Mr Lipczynski said.

“I see video as an important tool for the future and wanted it as the core of Vpply. I was also looking for a new challenge with an idea that is fresh and exciting.”

The sectors on board

In January 2021, Vpply listed more than 6,000 jobs in industries including hospitality, retail, administration, recruitment, sales and marketing and is currently expanding.

The platform gained over 2,000 unique users in January alone, most of them between 24-34 years old – an age group that Mr Lipczynski says “suffered the most” as a result of the recession.

Related: Women and young adults among those hit hardest by COVID-19, Queensland survey finds

Even though the overall unemployment rate in Australia dropped down to 6.4 per cent in January this year, it increased to 13.9 per cent for young people at the same time.

“In October, employment among Australian youth 15-24 was 4.4 per cent below its level in March and represents the largest drop of any age group,” Mr Lipczynski said.

“As the unemployment of Australian youth has been the most impacted during COVID-19, Vpply’s platform has been most adapted and used by these age groups, showing a demand for jobs and more innovative ways to apply.”

What about CVs and cover letters?

Mr Lipczynski says job search companies that use mostly traditional application methods “may employ wrong culture fit” due to the restrictive nature of CVs. Vpply’s aim, however, is not to eliminate CVs and cover letters but to have video application as the first step towards recruitment.

“Various jobseekers have worked very hard on their career history and have amazing CVs, so we do not want to take away from showcasing those achievements.

“It is however the same jobseekers that are finding it very hard to get a foot in the door, even to gain experience in unpaid internships, so Vpply is an option to try a different method to get hired.”

The company says it will work with various associations to provide fair solutions and experiences for job seekers and employers, but it is ultimately up to the hiring party to choose an individual based on their CV/video, video interview and/or face to face interview.

An ‘opportunity for innovation

For the Vpply team, 2021 is all about research and development. The company says its aim is to improve the jobseeker experience while finding new ways to scale and generate revenue streams – especially in areas like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

“We are sitting on a unique product in the market with the opportunity for innovation and using various forms of AI,” Mr Lipczynski said.

Related: Let’s Talk: Automation – To be or not to be for your business?

Vpply currently integrates with Seek-owned JobAdder and is working with partners that will allow automatic postings in Australia and New Zealand.

“AI in video can pick up on so many pieces of information that cannot be gathered from CVs and this will be the new trend in the next few years – from simple cues such as lighting and length of application time,” Mr Lipczynski explained.

“Machine learning can be applied to tone, body language and various other points that Vpply will work with jobseekers to give them a larger chance of success in landing their dream job.”

Tom’s tips for a top video application

Mr Lipczynski says job seekers should be confident and willing to showcase their unique personalities while being mindful of factors such as lighting, audio and talking pace in their video applications.

“Although videos allow for greater creativity and range in applications, it is important for jobseekers to remember that they are part of a formal application process. Therefore, looking presentable and keeping videos at a considerable length – recommended 30 seconds to one minute – are all tips to filming a great application.

“The beauty of Vpply is that we allow retakes. However, the first take is often the best – so best not to overthink!”


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AppliedVR’s program includes a feature for users to go through guided breathing exercises, which are visualized in a 3-D nature scene. Photo credit: AppliedVR

For the past six years, AppliedVR has been distributing VR headsets to hospitals to see if it could help reduce pain and anxiety during what for many patients can be a stressful experience. Now, the digital health startup is testing its platform to see if it can have a similar effect in a home setting.

The Los Angeles-based company shared the results of a pivotal trial showing its VR program was effective in helping people manage chronic lower back pain at home. The results of the randomized controlled trial, published Wednesday in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, showed that users reported a 42% reduction in pain intensity, though the study had certain limitations.

“We were ecstatic with the results we got,” CEO Matthew Stoudt said in a phone interview, adding that he plans to make a submission to the Food and Drug Administration this year.

“Our long-term vision has always been, how do we bring this into the home?” he added. “Ultimately, we are a doctor-prescribed payer-reimbursed model. We’re focused on building a body of evidence.”

Last year, AppliedVR got Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA after publishing results showing early successes in using its program to help people manage fibromyalgia and lower back pain at home. The designation could help accelerate the company’s pathway through the FDA and, thanks to a recent regulatory change, could even lead to a short path to Medicare coverage.

The most recent study tested whether the digital program was effective in reducing lower-back pain for people that went through an eight-week program. Unlike some other virtual programs, it’s focused less on physical therapy exercises and more on cognitive-behavioral therapy for pain management.

Called EaseVRx, the self-guided course walks users through pain education and guided breathing exercises with a nature scene that responds to their breathing. For example, wind blowing in the background might calm as a user slows their breath.

“We’re trying to help people acquire key pain management skills, and the way we can enhance learning and encoding of information is to provide rapid biofeedback in an immersive environment,” said Beth Darnall, AppliedVR’s chief science advisor, who co-authored the study.

Separating immersion from intervention
The double-blind study was also designed to answer questions from the FDA on how much of the therapeutic effect was from merely wearing a headset versus interacting with AppliedVR’s program. To test this, the company created a “sham” VR program that consisted of 2-D nature scenes, designed to hold users’ attention but without a specific therapeutic effect.

While the intervention group reported their average pain intensity decreased from 5.1 to 2.9 after eight weeks, the control group saw a more modest decrease, from 5.2 to 4.

“It’s exciting that we substantially exceeded the effect of the sham,” she said.

Participants that used EaseVRx also reported reductions in pain interfering with their activity, sleep, mood and stress levels.

Study limitations
That said, the study still had some significant limitations. An important one: The vast majority of the 179 adults who participated were white, female and college-educated, representing a narrow demographic.

Since the study was not linked to medical care, all data were self-reported, other than participants’ use of the VR headset. Because of this, “…there was no ability to confirm pain diagnoses or analgesic prescription information,” according to the paper.

About 90% of users stuck with the program, which Stoudt attributed to years of work to make the headset easier to use.

In addition to seeking FDA clearance, AppliedVR plans to build a system into the headset that would capture users’ breathing rate, so that no other devices need to be connected for them to receive feedback while going through the program.

“We have a ton of scars on our back from a lot of things we’ve done wrong in terms of sending devices into the home,” he said. “Ease of use is going to be the biggest barrier to ultimate adoption.”

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Paula Soteropoulos

Gene therapy may offer potential cures, but its promise comes with a price. Some experimental approaches require a multi-step process to prepare stem cells for the procedure—a burden to a patient and to the healthcare system, according to Paula Soteropoulos, executive chair of startup Ensoma.

Soteropoulos’s company is proposing an alternative. The Boston-based biotech is developing technology that won’t require hospitalization in a specialized medical center. Furthermore, the Ensoma technology does its therapeutic work in vivo—inside the patient. These features could make genomic medicine more accessible, turning a lengthy hospital process into a single visit to a doctor’s office.

“Our hope with our technology is to be able to do it outpatient,” Soteropoulos said. “It’s an injection that can be done anywhere, it doesn’t require specialized centers.”

Ensoma emerged last week with details about its technology and $70 million in Series A financing. The company also revealed something unusual for a preclinical startup coming out of stealth: a research partnership with a large pharmaceutical company. Takeda Pharmaceutical is collaborating with Ensoma on up to five disease targets.

Soteropoulos, the former CEO of rare-disease drug developer Akcea Therapeutics, said Takeda and others that want to be in gene therapy are looking for in vivo innovations. Ex vivo approaches, in which a patient’s cells are removed and manipulated in a lab before being reintroduced, pose complexities and challenges for companies trying to commercialize them and to healthcare facilities that will provide them, she said.

Gene therapies reach target cells as cargo carried on engineered viruses. But these viruses come with limitations. Adeno-associated virus (AAV), a commonly used vector, can trigger an immune response. AAV also has limited capacity, which makes it hard to deliver a therapy consisting of a larger gene.

An alternative vector, lentivirus, has more capacity but is still limited in its ability to carry a big payload. This approach requires collecting a patient’s stem cells and engineering them outside the body. Before the stem cells are reintroduced, patients must undergo conditioning, comprised of chemotherapy. This step helps the stem cells carrying a therapeutic gene to be taken up by bone marrow, where they will proliferate. But conditioning can lead to side effects such as greater susceptibility to infection and bleeding. Avrobio and bluebird bio are among the biotechs developing lentiviral stem cell gene therapies that require patient  conditioning.

Soteropoulos describes Ensoma’s engineered adenoviruses as “gutless.” On the inside, they’re stripped of viral DNA or RNA that could trigger an immune response. On the outside, the viruses are engineered to specifically target hematopateic stem cells in the bone marrow. They can also target the cells that arise from these stem cells, such as T cells, B cells, and myeloid cells.

There’s another benefit to Ensoma’s gutless viruses. Removing their DNA or RNA creates more room for the genetic payload—more than three times as much as what the viruses used to deliver the current generation of gene therapies can carry. With that extra space, Ensoma’s vectors can carry larger genes as well as gene-editing tools, such as CRISPR or zinc finger nucleases.

“It allows us to do things that other gene therapies cannot,” Soteropoulos said.

Ensoma’s science is based on 20 years of research from the company’s scientific co-founders, Hans-Peter Kiem of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and André Lieber of the University of Washington School of Medicine. In the past five years, that research started forming the foundations of a company. In 2017, the scientists published research showing how their cells were taken up by the bone marrow in a monkey study. Last year, they published study results showing how their approach corrected two genetic disorders, beta thalassemia and sickle cell disease, in mice.

Ensoma was founded about 18 months ago, backed by seed financing from 5AM Ventures, Soteropoulos said. The startup licensed technology from Fred Hutch and UW, then added to the research, building on the intellectual property surrounding it. She said the research reached the point where additional financing was needed to support the next step of selecting which diseases to pursue.

Along the way, the startup drew interest from larger companies that had followed the science of its founders, Soteropoulos said. One of those companies was Takeda. In addition to investing in Ensoma’s Series A financing, the Tokyo-based pharmaceutical giant is also a research partner. The collaboration grants Takeda an exclusive global license to Ensoma’s technology for up to five rare diseases. That alliance could lead to up to $100 million in upfront and preclinical research payments to Ensoma. If all five programs reach the market, Ensoma could receive as much as $1.25 billion in milestone payments plus royalties from sales.

The Ensoma technology offers the potential to go beyond rare diseases. Soteropoulos said that the in vivo approach does away with all the complexity of working with a therapy outside of the body, making these therapies simpler to manufacture and easier to administer. She added that the fact that these therapies won’t require conditioning or stem cell donors helps extend the reach of these genetic medicines to common diseases.

Ensoma is pursuing rare diseases first. The technology is new, so regulators will need time to understand it, Soteropoulos said. Takeda and Ensoma aren’t disclosing the disease targets they have in mind and Soteropoulos said it’s too soon to say when the technology will reach human testing. But she added that because Ensoma’s approach holds promise to address many diseases, there are plenty to choose from. The startup may look for other collaborators in the future but in the near term, the company will focus on developing its own therapies in addition to working with Takeda.

“There are some rare diseases where there is already validation from being able to make these modifications and cure,” Soteropoulos said. “We would be working off of that for our first indications and then see how we can explore other areas.”

5AM led Ensoma’s Series A financing. Besides Takeda, the new round of funding included the participation of F-Prime Capital, Viking Global Investors, Cormorant Asset Management, RIT Capital Partners, Symbiosis II, and Alexandria Venture Investments.

Photo by Ensoma

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MedCity News will host its annual INVEST conference online, April 19-23. INVEST is a premier international healthcare investing event hosted in partnership with MHIN, a Midwest healthcare investor organization. The conference brings together active investors and promising startups in biopharma, diagnostics, medical devices, health IT, and health services.

INVEST will address six broad themes through a mix of live and pre-recorded sessions:

  • Public Health and Health Equity
  • Healthcare Delivery
  • Healthcare Investing & Financing
  • Empowering Patients
  • Behavioral Health
  • Employer Health

Among the confirmed speakers so far are:

  • Ellen Herlacher, Principal, LRV Health
  • Dennis Depenbusch, Director, New Ventures, BCBS Kansas
  • Austin Duke, Senior Venture Associate, UnityPoint Health Ventures
  • Christina Farr, Principal, OMERS Ventures
  • Ami Bhatt, MD, Director, Outpatient/TeleCardiology & Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program, Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Harsh Vathsangam, PhD, co-founder and CEO, Moving Analytics
  • Kevin Dedner, Founder and CEO, Hurdle
  • M Daniele Fallin, PhD, Chair, Department of Mental Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Morgan Cheatham, Investor, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Tina Hernandez-Boussard, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Surgery, Stanford University School of Medicine
  • Sahil Choudhry, Managing Director, Cigna Ventures & Strategy

Click here to register now


Pitch Perfect Startup Competition

As in previous years, promising startups will get the opportunity to present to investors directly as part of the INVEST Pitch Perfect competition. In order to apply to get selected, startups must fulfill one of the following criteria:

  • Have raised at least $1 million, or
  • Have raised a Series A round, or
  • Have one qualified institutional investor or a strategic investor that they can name

There is no application fee. The deadline for submissions is Feb 28, so please click here to apply now.

Ask the Investor

One new feature of the conference will be intimate sessions to give startups an overview of investment strategies for leading healthcare investors and provide them the opportunity to engage in a Q&A with them. Each session will feature one investor who will outline his or her investment philosophy and area of interest, and 10 startups will be able to participate. Startups who choose to register for this session will be asked to provide company and contact information that will be shared with the presenting investor to facilitate interaction after the session.

Space is limited to 10 startups per meeting. Please register here.

If you are a VC or corporate investor and want to be considered for a judging role, or you’d like to speak on one of our panels at the event, please click here.

To learn about sponsorship opportunities, contact Stephanie Baum, Director of Special Projects, at sbaum@medcitynews.com or email the sales team at advertising@medcitynews.com.

For general information about the conference, contact Laura Kittredge, Director of Events at lkittredge@medcitynews.com.

Illustration: DrAfter123, Getty Images

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Question mark heap on table concept for confusion,

The MedCity INVEST conference, scheduled for April 19-23, is offering new ways for healthcare startups to connect with investors at the online event. Ask the Investor sessions will provide a way for startups to get insights on investment strategy and to pose questions about funding and more.

Ellen Herlacher Principal, LRV Health, is one of a handful of investors taking part in these sessions. She will be joined by Dennis Depenbusch, Director New Ventures, BCBS Kansas and president of Mid-America Healthcare Investors Network (MHIN) and Austin Duke, Senior Venture Associate, UnityPoint Health Ventures.

Ellen Herlacher, LRVHealth

Although registration to INVEST is free, startups will be asked to pay $99 to participate in Ask the Investor sessions.  Each virtual meeting will include one investor and last for 45 minutes. Following the investor’s presentation on their investment strategy and area of interest, startups will be asked to provide a 1-minute company overview. There will be an opportunity for Q&A. Investors will receive executive summaries for each startup with contact information.

Space is limited to 10 startups per meeting. Please register here.

Herlacher said she decided to participate in the Ask the Investor session in part because the last year has been so tough on entrepreneurs. The lack of in-person meetings in the past year has meant fewer opportunities for them to network and meet potential partners, customer, employees, or investors.

“I can relate because, as an investor, I’ve missed being able to have chance encounters and thoughtful conversations with talented entrepreneurs, too. I’m really looking forward to the Ask the Investor session at INVEST because it will help fill that void a little bit.”

In response to emailed questions, Herlacher noted that LRVHealth is a venture platform that invests exclusively in early stage digital health companies.

“Our investment dollars are 100% strategic, which is to say that our investors are a mix of healthcare systems, payers, and  large healthcare IT vendors. We draw heavily from their perspectives as well as from our collective experiences as healthcare operators to invest in companies that improve the delivery and administration of healthcare and make people healthier.”

Asked what kinds of criteria LRVHealth considers when deciding whether to work with a startup, Herlacher noted that strategic alignment with the investment themes the firm has developed through close counsel with its network, based on their current and future priorities, is the most important consideration.

“On top of that, I also look for thing like quality and aptitude of the team, size of the market and competitive dynamics, business model, and go-to-market strategy.”

Herlacher said healthcare startups should work with LRVHealth because the firm is interested in developing deep and meaningful partnerships that are backed by industry experience and a network of healthcare leaders, decision makers, and buyers.

“We have a track record of success that extends over two decades.”

Photo: bernie_photo, Getty Images

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For decades, scientists have known that viruses can kill cancer cells. The challenge has been harnessing that power safely and effectively.

Buoyed by advances in immunotherapy and drug discovery, a new wave of researchers and companies is poised to make a run at that challenge over the next few years with a class of therapies known as oncolytic viruses.

“We’re just on the brink of some really exciting developments in our field,” said Charlotte Casebourne, CEO of Theolytics. Based in Oxford, England, the company hopes to move its lead oncolytic virus candidate into clinical trials over the next two to three years.

The field is based on a relatively simple premise. A virus is injected into tumor cells; the virus replicates and blows up – or lyses – the tumor cells; the immune system recognizes the remaining tumor cells and clears them out.

The premise was discovered decades ago in patients who came down with viruses alongside cancer. The viruses attacked the cancer but they also could harm patients.

Early research focused on attenuated viruses, which generally proved too weak to do much. Recent advances are solving that challenge while addressing new ones, such as preventing the immune system from turning on the virus.

“Right now, it’s about finding that Goldilocks, that perfect happy medium,” said Greg Delgoffe, a cancer immunologist and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The field got a shot in the arm in 2015 when Amgen won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an oncolytic virus therapy called T-VEC. Based on a genetically modified herpes simplex virus and marketed as Imlygic, it is used to treat melanomas that cannot be surgically removed.

“We have this example which provides us with really nice clinical proof of concept that efficacy is possible with oncolytic viruses as a technical approach,” Casebourne said in a Zoom interview.

T-VEC, however, is injected directly into a tumor. Some of the newer therapies are designed to be injected intravenously, allowing them to move through the body to clear cancer.

Theolytics’ lead candidate is TheoAd281, an adenovirus-based therapy that targets ovarian cancer. Clinical trials will focus on its safety and efficacy as a monotherapy, delivered intravenously, before delving into its potential in combination with other therapies, Casebourne said.

The company was founded in 2017 by Casebourne and researchers Margaret Duffy, Kerry Fisher and Len Seymour. It raised $6.8 million in a Series A round in early 2021 led by Epidarex Capital and Taiho Ventures, with participation from existing investor Oxford Sciences Innovation.

In addition to Amgen’s approved therapy, the field has benefited from advances in drug discovery and gene sequencing, Casebourne noted. Theolytics uses a proprietary phenotypic platform to figure out which virus variants might be effective against particular tumors, Casebourne said. The platform speeds up the discovery process to between 12 and 18 months, she added.

Valo Therapeutics also is banking on a platform approach. Its platform incorporates peptides to create oncolytic viruses that do not linger in the body after they turn the immune system against tumor cells. Its lead candidate, PeptiCRAd 1, is expected to enter phase 1 trials this year, most likely for treating melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer, according to Paul Higham, CEO of Valo, which is based in Oxford, England.

The use of peptides is based on research by Vincenzo Cerullo, a professor and head of the drug research program at Helsinki University in Finland.

“Because it’s actually a simple process to attach peptides on the surface of the oncolytic virus, we can be extremely flexible in terms of what we attach to the viruses,” Higham said. “We can select all different kinds of peptides to stimulate all different kinds of immune responses.”

Different tumors may require different peptides, he said. “The most effective therapies in the future are going to be those that are most specific to the patient being treated, and our platform really allows to do that.”

Another contender in the space is CG Oncology, based in Irvine, California. In December, the company raised $47 million in a Series D round led by Kissei Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. CG’s main oncolytic virus candidate, CG0070, is being examined in several clinical trials.

A phase 3 trial is testing the candidate as monotherapy for a form of bladder cancer. A phase 2 trial is studying CG0070 for the same indication but in combination with Merck’s Keytruda, a checkpoint inhibitor. The candidate is injected directly into the tumor.

Checkpoint inhibitors release the brakes on the immune system while the oncolytic virus strengthens the immune response, said Arthur Kuan, CG’s CEO. “I think oncolytic viruses will continue to emerge as one of the best combination partners with checkpoint inhibitors.”

The company is planning to move into other cancers this year, Kuan said in a phone interview. He and others expect that future oncologists will have a range of viruses to choose from based on a range of factors, including the type and location of the cancer.

It may be years before therapies win approval, Kuan said. But he believes the oncolytic virus field is coming into its own.

“We’re definitely in a rising-tide environment with many catalysts coming up in the next 12 to 18 months,” he said.

The field’s challenges over the years have made investors somewhat leery, said Dr. Mark McCamish, CEO of San Diego-based IconOVir Bio.

For its part, IconOVir was able to overcome investor skepticism by explaining how the field has overcome some of its earlier challenges, McCamish said. Those challenges have included creating an oncolytic virus that could escape detection by the immune system and confer lasting immunity against a tumor. IconOVir Bio raised $77 million earlier this year in Series A funding to advance its platform for creating oncolytic virus therapies. The platform is based on more than a decade of research by company co-founder Clodagh O’Shea of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences.

“It’s data-driven. It’s not just a story,” said McCamish, who previously led immune-oncology company Forty Seven before it was bought last year by Gilead Sciences.

IconOVir is hoping to start clinical trials of its lead candidate, IOV-1042, in the first half of 2022. Derived from the common cold virus, IOV-1042 has been shown in preclinical research to infect and kill a range of tumor cells, including head and neck, bladder, lung and breast.

“I think it’s an exciting field and an exciting time,” said McCamish. “And if the science comes to fruition, it’s a great opportunity.”

Photo: Main_sail, Getty Images

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contest, spotlight

Given that we are still practicing physical distancing, the annual MedCity INVEST conference is launching a novel way to facilitate interactions between innovative startups and investors looking for the next new thing. INVEST is scheduled for April 19-23 and will take place virtually.

Called “Ask the Investor” these intimate meetings with healthcare and life science investors throughout the week will provide startups a unique opportunity to connect directly with traditional VCs and Corporate VCs, hear about their investment strategies, and ask questions. Each virtual meeting will feature one investor and last for 45 minutes. Following the investor’s presentation on their investment strategy and area of interest, startups will be asked to provide a 1-minute company overview. There will be an opportunity for Q&A. Investors will receive executive summaries for each startup with contact information. Space is limited to 10 startups per meeting. Please register here

These are the following health tech investors who will present their strategies from their respective perspectives as a traditional VC, payer VC and provider VC and more will be added to INVEST’s agenda page as we confirm speakers:

Ellen Herlacher Principal, LRV Health
Ellen is a healthcare investor with over a decade of experience in investment management, healthcare operations, and corporate strategy. She joined LRVHealth in 2020 and was previously director of Tufts Health Ventures (corporate venture arm of Tufts Health Plan), manager of Emerging Businesses at athenahealth, investment manager at Goldman Sachs, and consultant at Bain & Company. She holds a B.A. from Cornell University and M.B.A. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dennis Depenbusch, Director New Ventures, BCBS Kansas Dennis is responsible for the direction, coordination, evaluation, and management in developing and leading strategic investment for BCBS Kansas. The focus of the initiative is to develop a portfolio of investments that, as a whole, focus on improving the Kansas (and national) healthcare market, enhance the core business of the company and generate revenue. These strategic investments are expected to be integrated into the company as part of its overall long-term strategy. Dennis brings more than 20 years of experience in creating, building and leading high growth enterprises in the United States and abroad. He most recently served as CEO/president of Ulterius Technologies in Wichita. Previously, he was in leadership and board roles for various technology and health-related start-ups in the USA and Europe. He holds two degrees from the University of Kansas: a bachelor’s in business and a master’s in business administration. Depenbusch is the outgoing president of the board of trustees for Bishop Seabury Academy, Lawrence, Chairs the MBA advisory board for KU’s School of Business, and is the current President and Board Member of MHIN.

Austin Duke, Senior Venture Associate, UnityPoint Health Ventures
Austin Duke currently serves as Senior Venture Associate at UnityPoint Health Ventures where he helps lead all investment activities including sourcing, diligence, execution and post-investment support. Austin brings more than 10 years of biomedical research and development experience along with a deep understanding of the opportunities and challenges presented to startup companies.

Prior to joining UnityPoint Health, Austin served as Chief Science Officer at Nexeon MedSystems Inc, where he led scientific, clinical and regulatory activities in support of the development and commercialization of Nexeon’s neurostimulation technology platform. Prior to Nexeon, Austin served as Vice President of Emerging Therapies at Rosellini Scientific and co-founded Nuviant Medical. Austin obtained his PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Vanderbilt University and his B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from North Carolina State University.

More investors within other healthcare sectors will be added soon. Space is limited to 10 startups for each “Ask the Investor” session. Please register here

Photo: Adam Taylor, Getty Images

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