“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 DNA sequencing 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 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 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 more quickly and more accurately the likely pathogens causing an infection when compared to standard methods.
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 the company chief technology officer, Sivan Bercovici. “For the microbial signatures that our technology can’t identify, we continuously bring in additional high-quality genomic blueprints from public databases, and we separately aggregate that data in a pool we call “dark matter” for further investigation. One of the biggest challenges is how to know that you simply don’t know,”
Karius works by digitizing the microbial information in a blood sample and uses machine learning and DNA sequencing to recognize the microbial signatures. The company uses public databases that have records of over 300,000 pathogens. For the ones that the company can’t identify, it creates a identifier for those as well.
At $2,000 per test, Karius’ biopsies aren’t cheap, but they’re safer and more cost-effective than surgeries, according to Kertesz. It’s obviating the need to dig into a patient for a piece of tissue and the technology is already being used in more than 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.