A gene therapy that relieves pain; a device to diagnose ear infections in children; a virtual reality microscope that allows doctors to see 95% more of a cancer cell.
These are just some of the state-of-the-art medical advances, currently under development, that were featured by 24 startup companies this week at the sixth annual Innovation Showcase, hosted by the Lundquist Institute, formerly known as the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute or LA BioMed.
The showcase once again made the institute, on the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center campus, the center of the biomedical world in Southern California. It also gave the research center — located in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, east of Torrance — a chance to display its new 78,000-square-foot, 4-story medical research lab building, which opened in March. The building features an 18,000-square-foot laboratory space for up to 30 medical startup companies.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who helped provide public financing for the institute’s new building, gave the opening remarks on Monday, Oct. 14. (A $70 million donation from Richard and Melanie Lundquist primarily funded the building).
During his remarks, Ridley-Thomas pledged further support for a bio-investment fund to aid new startups. He also said he’d help ensure the county provides additional contributions toward a new 15-acre biotechnology campus; the Lundquist Institute has buildings slated for construction there in the years to come.
“The biotech park will provide a cost-effective space for early life science companies and end the migration out of Los Angeles,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We want to keep those companies here. They belong here. We want to do more and more.”
Among the featured attendees was Ana Moreno, CEO of Navega Therapeutics, who came to the showcase looking to raise money toward her company’s work developing gene therapy to reduce people’s sensitivity to pain. If it’s successful in humans, Moreno said, the drug they are developing in San Diego could replace opioids — abuse of which is a continuing crisis in the United States. In 2017, for example, 68% of the more than 70,000 drug-overdose deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are developing gene therapy for chronic pain based on the fact that some people have mutations that don’t feel any pain,” Moreno explained. “We are targeting the same gene in a non-permanent way so we are not actually editing the genome but lowering the expression of that gene to allow for long-term pain relief.”
Representatives for banks and venture capital funds also drifted around the event, shedding light on the world of bio-pharmaceutical research: The name of the game for many of these startup companies, Moreno said, is to develop a specific concept to a certain extent and then sell the company to a pharmaceutical giant.
“A lot of times, these pharmaceutical companies acquire startups like ours so they wait until it gets to a certain milestone,” Moreno said. “A lot of companies are doing that.”
Investment dollars — along with government grants, such as those from the National Institutes of Health — are extremely valuable to a startup company, Moreno said.
“The NIH money will allow us to get closer,” Moreno added, “but we need millions of dollars to take it to the next level.”
Kwame Ulmer, a partner at Pasadena venture capital firm Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, said his firm typically participates in rounds of investment generating between $1 million and $3 million, though Wavemaker’s individual contributions average about $250,000.
Ulmer said there is not really competition among investors because various firms and institutions often co-invest in the same company.
“Our No. 1 objective here is to meet great companies,” Ulmer said.
Asked whether the 24 companies at the showcase were guaranteed some amount of funding, Ulmer said there was a good possibility but he wasn’t sure.
“My sense is they are above average quality and they have a great shot at getting some funding,” Ulmer said. “But really, it’s a matter of the strength of their team, their technology and their ability to excite, delight and invite.”
Other companies on display
Cactus Health: has developed a device that diagnoses ear infections in children with a push of a button.
Lucid Science: has built a virtual reality microscope that allows clinicians to see cancer cells in ways they previously could not.
Catalia Health: has created an artificial intelligence-powered virtual home health aide, providing 24/7 support to patients who need it but can’t afford a full-time person.