Google Quietly Invests in This Cancer-Testing Startup, Builds Lab on Verily Campus to Sweeten Deal

Google Quietly Invests in This Cancer-Testing Startup, Builds Lab on Verily Campus to Sweeten Deal July 25, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

Verily Life Sciences, one of the company’s under Google ’s umbrella company Alphabet, has invested in Freenome. It is not clear how much money Verily invested, but it built a dedicated laboratory for the company and is offering office space, as well.

Verily has a rather broad and generally nonspecific focus on improving healthcare. Some of its efforts are known, such as attempting to develop a contact lens that can read glucose levels in diabetic patients, and an auto-focus contact lens for far-sighted people. In January, Alphabet invested 1.4 billion euros into the Irish subsidiary of Verily.

Freenome, co-founded by Gabriel Otte, the company’s chief executive officer, is a diagnostic company that uses a liquid biopsy diagnosis platform to detect the cell-free DNA sequencing of cancer. In March, Freenome announced it had raised $65 million in a Series A financing led by Andreessen Horowitz. Seed investors Horowitz, Data Collective (DCVC) and Founders Fund also contributed. They were joined by GV (Google Ventures), Polaris Partners, Innovation Endeavors, Asset Management Ventures, Charles River Ventures and Spectrum 28.

Although not listed in the original announcements, apparently Verily invested in Freenome as well, separate from the GV investment. CNBC notes, “The funding represents a deviation in strategy for Verily, which typically forms partnerships with life sciences companies to jointly develop companies or products. To sweeten the deal, Verily built Freenome’s clinical team a lab to their specifications, the person said. Freenome’s team, which amounts to about 40 people, has now moved in.”

The laboratory is on Verily’s campus in South San Francisco.

A Verily spokesperson told CNBC, “We are providing office space to Freenome in order to foster collaboration between the two companies.”

What Freenome is attempting to do is take a blood sample and use machine learning and advanced algorithms to identify very early indications of cancer via DNA fragments or potentially other biomarkers. Freenome isn’t the only company to be working on this area. Although the technical hurdles are likely manageable, very early cancer detection of this type is likely to have a significant risk of false positive results or identifying early cancer results that the body’s immune system may handle itself.

On the other hand, for some cancers, very early diagnosis would be a good thing, because they often don’t become obvious until they’re advanced. For example, pancreatic cancer.

One of its big competitors is Grail Bio, which was launched in January 2016 by San Diego-based Illumina , the world’s leader in DNA sequencing technology. Grail Bio was launched with a Series A financing of more than $100 million from Illumina and ARCH Venture Partners, with participating investments from Bezos Expeditions, Bill Gates and Sutter Hill Ventures.

Grail’s plans are to leverage Illumina’s gene sequencing technologies to focus on ctDNA, which is a direct measurement of cancer DNA. The company hopes it can improve sensitivity and specificity by improved signal-to-noise ratio and more mutations detected per sample.

Other companies working on “liquid biopsy” cancer tests include Guardant Health, Exosome Diagnostics, and Pathway Genomics.

Google will offer deep pockets and advanced search technology to Freenome’s efforts. It has its Deep Learning AI project, which it is using for better cancer diagnostics, which has proven successful in studies.

Back to news