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Karius raises $165 million for its liquid biopsy technology identifying diseases in a drop of blood

“What Karius is good at is identifying those novel microbes before they become an outbreak like coronavirus,” says Mickey Kertesz, a chief executive whose life sciences startup just hauled in $165 million in new funding.

While the new money may have been raised under the looming threat of Covid 19, the company’s technology is already being used to test for infection-causing pathogens in immunocompromised pediatric patients, and for potential causes of complex pneumonia, fungal infections and endocarditis, according to a statement from the company. 

Liquid biopsy technology has been widely embraced in cancer treatments as a way to identify which therapies may work best for patients based on the presence of trace amounts of genetic material in a patient’s bloodstream that are shed by cancer cells.

Karius applies the same principles to the detection of pathogens in the blood — developing hardware and software that applies computer vision and machine learning techniques to identify the genetic material that’s present in a blood sample.

As the company explains, microbes infecting the human body leave traces of their DNA in blood, which are called microbial cell-free DNA (mcfDNA). The company’s test can measure the that cell free DNA of more than 1,000 clinically relevant samples from things like bacteria, DNA viruses, fungi, and parasites. These tests indicate the types of quantities of those pathogens that are likely affecting a patient. 

“We’re through the early stages of adoption and clinical studies show that the technology literally saves lives,” says Kertesz.

Its early successes were enough to attract the attention of SoftBank, which is backing the company through capital raised for its second Vision Fund.

While SoftBank has been roundly criticized for investing too much too soon (or too late) into consumer startups which have not lived up to their promise (notably with implosions at Brandless, Zume, and the potential catastrophe known as WeWork), its life sciences investing team has an impressive track record. “They have the experience and the expertise and the network that’s very relevant to us,” Kertesz said of the decision to take SoftBank’s money. “That’s the team that was on the board of Guardant Health [and] 10X Genomics.”

Both of those companies have proven to be successful in public markets and with validated technology. That’s a feature which Karius shares. The company’s published an analytical and clinical validation of its test in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Microbiology showing that its test identified the likely pathogens causing an infection when compared to standard methods more quickly and more accurately. 

With initial validation behind it, the company raised its new cash to pursue rapid commercial adoption for its tests and to continue validating applications of its technology while exploring new ones.

Among the primary areas of exploration is the identification of new biomarkers, which could serve as indicators for new diseases (like Covid 19).

“As humanity we haven’t figured out infectious diseases yet,” said Kertesz. “Specifically at the stage where the pathogen is identified.” Karius has the technology to do that — although it doesn’t yet have the capability to screen for RNA viruses (which are types of diseases like SARS and the coronavirus), Kertesz said. “It’s the only type of virus that the platform is unable to detect… [We’re] adding that detection capability.” 

Karius works by digitizing the microbial information in a blood sample and uses machine learning and computer vision to recognize the microbial signatures. The company uses public databases which have records of over 300,000 pathogens. For the ones that the company can’t identify, it creates a identifier for those as well. “One of the biggest challeges we have here is to know what we don’t know,” said Kertesz.

At $2,000 per test, Karius’ biopsies aren’t cheap, but they’re safer and more cost effective than surgeries, according to Kartesz. It’s obviating the need to dig into a patient for a piece of tissue and the technology is already being used in over 100 hospitals and health systems, the company said.

With that kind of reach new investors including General Catalyst and HBM Healthcare Investments were willing to sign on with SoftBank’s Vision Fund and previous investors like Khosla Ventures and LightSpeed Venture Partners to participate in the latest round.

“Infectious diseases are the second leading cause of deaths worldwide. Karius’ innovative mcfDNA technology accurately diagnoses infections that cannot be determined by other existing technologies,” said Deep Nishar, Senior Managing Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement.

 

Investors in LatAm get bitten by the hotel investment bug as Ayenda raises $8.7 million

Some of Latin America’s leading venture capital investors are now backing hotel chains.

In fact, Ayenda, the largest hotel chain in Colombia, has raised $8.7 million in a new round of funding, according to the company.

Led by Kaszek Ventures, the round will support the continued expansion of Ayenda’s chain of hotels in Colombia and beyond. The hotel operator already has 150 hotels operating under its flag in Colombia and has recently expanded to Peru, according to a statement.

Financing came from Kaszek Ventures, and strategic investors like Irelandia Aviation, Kairos, Altabix, and BWG Ventures.

The company, which was founded in 2018, now has more than 4,500 rooms under its brand in Colombia and has become the biggest hotel chain in the country.

Investments in brick and mortar chains by venture firms are far more common in emerging markets than they are in North America. The investment in Ayenda mirrors big bets that SoftBank Group has made in the Indian hotel chain Oyo and an investment made by Tencent, Sequoia China, Baidu Capital and Goldman Sachs, in LvYue Group late last year amounting to “several hundred million dollars”, according to a company statement.

“We’re seeking to invest in companies that are redefining the big industries and we found Ayenda, a team that is changing the hotel’s industry in an unprecedented way for the region”, said Nicolas Berman, Kaszek Ventures Partner.

Ayenda works with independent hotels through a franchise system to help them increase their occupancy and services. The hotels have to apply to be part of the chain and go through an up to 30-day inspection process before they’re approved to open for business.

“With a broad supply of hotels  with the best cost-benefit relationship, guests can travel more frequently accelerating the economy”, says Declan Ryan, Managing Partner at Irelandia Aviation.

The company hopes to have over 1 million guests in 2020 in their hotels. With rooms listing at $20 per-night including amenities and an around the clock customer support team.

Oyo’s story may be a cautionary tale for companies looking at expanding via venture investment for hotel chains. The once high-flying company has been the subject of some scathing criticism. As we wrote:

The New York Times  published an in-depth report on Oyo, a tech-enabled budget hotel chain and rising star in the Indian tech community. The NYT wrote that Oyo offers unlicensed rooms and has bribed police officials to deter trouble, among other toxic practices.

Whether Oyo, backed by billions from the SoftBank  Vision Fund, will become India’s WeWork is the real cause for concern. India’s startup ecosystem is likely to face a number of barriers as it grows to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley.

So much for pessimism

After WeWork exploded there was — at least supposedly — a change in sentiment among investors and founders alike. Gone were the days of easy nine-figure rounds, expensive growth, negative unit economics and the rest of the excess that Startupland has enjoyed over the past half-decade.

Inside this purported sentiment shift, I presumed, was a decrease in optimism; surely venture capitalists and entrepreneurs would change their behavior inside this new paradigm?

But by some measures, they haven’t. I expected that startups would achieve more conservative proximate valuations in the post-WeWork world, as their leaders would aim to raise a bit less, and a bit more conservatively, and investors would be less starry-eyed in the prices they were willing to pay for startup equity.

That was all wrong, it turns out. A recent report from Fenwick and West, a legal firm that works with technology companies, paints a picture that is the complete opposite of what we might have anticipated.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; our recent reporting hardly describes a market in slowdown. Boston is having a good start to the year, for example. SaaS is also looking healthy from a venture capital perspective. Cloud stocks are at all-time highs and One Medical is still defying gravity as a public stock. Whatever lesson WeWork was supposed to teach, it doesn’t appear to have made much impact.

Let’s explore the Fenwick data and then ask if we can spot anywhere where the markets are behaving like the chastened children that we were told had taken over.

Up, and to the right