Two years ago, when I was doing research in academia, I realized that while it is important to research new biological knowledge and publish papers, it did little to help family and friends who continued to suffer from cancer that probably could have been avoided, if it had been detected early enough.
Once I realized that all of the tools that we need to cure diseases like cancer were already available — they just weren’t polished nor readily available — my co-founders Charlie Roberts, Riley Ennis and I co-founded Freenome.
This adaptive genomics company was founded on the idea that biomedical research should be focused on translating discovery into solutions that help people live healthier lives and avoid diseases like cancer.
So in 2014, we embarked on our journey armed with a method of detecting cancer using a simple, non-invasive blood test rather than an invasive biopsy.
We knew that the solution was not in novel biological methods but rather in novel interpretation of existing biology.
Charlie, having founded a cell-free (free floating in blood) DNA based non-invasive prenatal testing company, brought the requisite knowledge about cell-free DNA. Riley had deep knowledge of the cancer space with work on his own cancer immunotherapy company. I brought the genomics and machine learning knowledge that tied the two together. Our collective vision won us the Verizon Powerful Answers Award — a $700K grant. With that money in hand, we started our development and never looked back.
Today, we’re thrilled to announce that Freenome has raised a seed-round of $5.55M led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) along with Founders Fund, Data Collective Venture Capital, and Shana Fisher’s Third Kind Venture Capital (3kvc), among others. Beyond the money, this group of investors, led by Vijay Pande, general partner of the bio fund at a16z, brings a unique blend of expertise in biology, tech and business that are required to take our tests to market.
From the moment I met with Vijay and his colleague Malinka Walaliyadde, I knew that we saw eye-to-eye on how to properly build a company like Freenome. They understood that the solution was going to be in novel computational methods built on top of solid biology. They understood that innovation in this space had to be done responsibly and in collaboration with regulatory agencies and under transparent academic criticism.
So, instead of just talking to us about our technology, Vijay and the a16z team asked us if we’d be open to performing a blinded test. While we knew that our technology wasn’t fully fleshed out, we also knew that if we didn’t pass this test, we were deluding ourselves into thinking that it worked. We were sent five blinded samples of blood plasma and asked to categorize each one of them. With the samples in hand, I got to working in our lab. After analyzing them, we categorized three of the samples to be cancers: stage I, stage III and stage IV, and two as normal.
We were 100% correct. So, let me tell you more about Freenome and how it works.
But first let me explain our name: Freenome (pronounced free•nohm) is the dynamic collection of genetic material floating in your blood (cell-free) derived from the trillions of cells in your body. It is your living cell-free genome changing over time. Your freenome is the genomic thermometer of who you are as you grow, live and age.
By understanding one’s freenome, we have been able to develop early detection tests for cancer.
Our technology relies on a deep fusion of genomics research and computational expertise. Modern DNA sequencing has enabled us to answer traditionally biological questions with computational solutions. However, biology is in some ways, far more complicated than technology. So most of the time, researchers focus on reducing the biology down to simplified models. For example, of the 3 billion base sequences that make up our DNA, most researchers have focused on studying less than 2% of them in the pursuit of finding cancer signatures. Unfortunately, when detecting complex diseases like cancer, this focused and reductive approach may be insufficient.
So we focused on developing novel technology solutions to understand something as dynamic as our freenome. We built a learning engine called the Adaptive Genomics Engine (AGE) that is able to look at our genetic health in the most broad and inclusive way possible. Rather than creating a cancer test by fixating on a few mutations that have previously been associated with the disease, we allowed our technology to aid us in detecting every possible signature of cancer and the correct combination of them that allowed us to develop an accurate test.
But that’s not all. We realized that simply detecting cancer is insufficient for proper treatment of it.
Because our technology studied the freenome and not the static genome, we have been able to ask and answer questions beyond simple “disease” or “non-disease.”
With partners at leading research institutions we are expanding on our technology to not only detect disease but to provide additional information such as the type of the tumor and which therapeutics would be effective in treating it. We believe that over time, our technology will mature into the most cost-effective, accurate and enabling test for the detection and treatment of cancer.
Very soon, we will publish the first of our findings and continue our work with CMS and the FDA on pre-market review. We will also continue to pursue additional translational research collaborations with clinical organizations testing our technology.
Cancer touches everyone. We are motivated by our personal experiences and the stories of those around us. Through technology, the sense of helplessness that often accompanies a diagnosis can be turned into empowerment.
We look forward to keeping you posted on our progress and invite you to join us in this journey. Whether you are someone who wants to share your story of how cancer has touched you or you are a brilliant technologist or scientist wanting to help make a difference (we are hiring!), we want to hear from you.
Founder and CEO, Freenome Inc.
I want to thank our early supporters, advisors and investors. I also want to thank my co-founders Riley and Charlie without whom Freenome simply wouldn’t exist. I want to thank my brother Michael Otte and friend Adam Drake who’ve been instrumental in the development of the Freenome technology. And finally, I want to thank the patients who willingly provide us with the vital samples we need for research and development. Without you, the technology we’ve built would simply be just another set of published papers.