CRV just put advanced bioengineering on its shopping list

CRV, an early-stage venture firm that made headlines last year for its stance on then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign, is looking to get out a new (non-political) message: It’s diving more deeply into the business of AI-driven biotech.

The move comes years after some other venture firms have taken a deep dive into biotech, including True Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. But CRV general partner George Zachary would argue that CRV’s timing is pretty good, given both the burgeoning opportunity and the potential outcomes.

Consider that late last year, Stanford researchers trained a computer to identify images of skin cancer moles and lesions as accurately as a dermatologist. Entrepreneur and computer scientist Sebastian Thrun — who was involved in the project as an adjunct professor in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory — told us earlier this year that the researchers are forming a startup around their findings. (Natch.)

Another young company, Viz, is applying deep learning to ultrasounds, which typically require either a radiologist or other technician’s expertise (which can translate into a long wait for anxious patients). More specifically, Viz’s software compares ultrasounds with millions of other images and videos, ostensibly empowering primary care physicians to interpret the images and quickly take action.

And these are but two in a sea of examples that range from cancer screening to blood testing to human microbiome-focused startups (which alone number in the dozens).

What finally captured CRV’s interest? In part, it was personal, says Zachary, who had his own health scare several years ago when a large tumor was detected near his hip. For weeks, doctors thought he had sarcoma; they later discovered he did not, but today’s more advanced testing would have saved him a month’s worth of anguish.

Zachary doesn’t say so, but likely institutional investors see the same opportunity that VCs have spied, too, and CRV closed its most recent fund with $393 million in 2014. You’d expect that it might raise another fund in 2017 (if it’s not actively in the market already); you might also expect that some focus on biotech might elicit even more enthusiasm from those investors.

For what it’s worth, Zachary — whose past investments include the enterprise social network Yammer (acquired in 2012), the genealogy-focused social networking platform Geni (also acquired in 2012) and the education platform Udacity (co-founded by Thrun) — says CRV doesn’t plan to create a separate fund around advanced bioengineering. But he says that going forward, it will be his focus exclusively.

“It took me awhile to figure this out,” he says. But “like something staring me in the face,” he finally decided to “put my work behind my passion.”

Founders, take note.