Overwatch Research closes $3.5 million seed round to tackle a foundational preclinical research problem

Overwatch Research, a company creating workflow software for medical research, announced a $3.5 million seed round on Tuesday. This round of funding will help Overwatch expand its presence into the U.S., and get its clinical trial management software into more labs and drugmakers’ hands. 

Overwatch Research is behind software, also called Overwatch, designed to run the ins and outs of preclinical trials, from data collection to task tracking. The interface isn’t dissimilar to project management software you might see at a desk job (something like Trello, for instance), but its tools are designed for lab experiments. 

Experimental data can be shared in a central location. Study data can be visualized instantly, and lab-specific organizational tools, like spreadsheets tracking lab animals’ status, are all held in one place. 

Overwatch is CEO and co-founder Chris Armstrong’s approach to a problem he encountered during his career in prostate cancer drug development. 

“It seemed that we were still stuck in the same archaic method of managing studies,” Armstrong tells TechCrunch. “Everything was just spreadsheets and email trails. Things that in this day and age, I felt, should have been solved.”

Interviews with more than 250 biotech and pharma companies confirmed Armstrong’s intuition that the problem wasn’t only confined to his own experience. 

Overwatch was founded in 2017 and has already raised a pre-seed round to build out its software’s capability. This current round, led by Frontline Ventures, will bring the company’s total amount of funding raised to $4.27 million. 

The round also includes investment from SV Angel, Techstart Ventures and Michael Polansky (CEO of The Parker Group and co-founder of Parker Institute for Cancer Immunology), as well as several investors already active in the intersection of data management software and clinical research.

Those investors include Zach Weinberg, the co-founder of Flatiron Health (a major manager of real-world oncology data acquired by Roche in 2018), and Robert Fenton, CEO of Qualio (a cloud-based data management system for life sciences companies). 

Overwatch didn’t disclose its valuation. 

The big problem Overwatch is trying to tackle, per Armstrong, is the “reproducibility crisis” in clinical research. In short, when scientists try to recreate experiments and see if they get the same results, they find that this doesn’t happen as much as it should. 

The reproducibility crisis is best known in the world of psychology. But it’s also well-documented in preclinical research. A major 2015 study estimated the irreproducibility rate in preclinical research could be about 50%, but might also range from 18% to 89% (ironically, estimating irreproducibility is an imperfect science). Either way, the study estimated that about $28 billion is spent each year on research that can’t be replicated. 

Plenty of people have tried to understand why the reproducibility crisis exists. Explanations run the gamut from scientific fraud to poor study design, shady statistical practices and refusal to share data openly. For its part, the 2015 paper suggests poor research materials, study design and faulty data analysis are three major causes of the problem. 

That’s a lot of issues for software alone to tackle, but Armstrong’s pitch is that Overwatch can at least make a dent in two of those three areas: study design and faulty data analysis. Overwatch’s approach to the problem is to smooth out the kinks in study design that can bias an experiment before it even starts. That’s done via a “study creation engine” that makes designing a study a matter of filling in the blanks. 

“It’s basically a matter of a scientist going in and saying, ‘this is the type of model or type of study that I’m doing, and everything else is formatted as a consequence of that’,” Armstrong says. 

That formatting might suggest statistical tests that fit with certain study designs, and create systems designed to receive data in the proper format. 

Another thing to notice about Overwatch is the feel of the product. It’s a user-interface more like something you’d see on a personal computer than in a lab. The design aspect, in addition to the clinical trials tools, is one way the company hopes to distinguish itself from existing research management software. Armstrong says it takes a one-hour demo to run through the product, and about five minutes to onboard new users. 

“One of the major factors that’s lacking in software for life science is user experience as a whole. It seems like it’s about 10 to 15 years behind any other industry — scientists are still being forced to use horrible software that’s reminiscent of Windows XP, in terms of the interface,” says Armstrong. 

User-friendly software for scientists, once thought to be a niche area, has yielded returns for at least for one company: Benchling, another platform that can track experiments, interlink data and manage R&D workflows. This year, Benchling has raised about $350 million, and was valued at $4 billion, per Forbes

The real test, though, is whether Overwatch can actually sell to biotech and pharma companies, which will need to be convinced to let a startup’s software run their precious preclinical research processes.

So far, Overwatch has closed 20 deals with biotech companies in the United States and 15 in Europe. The startup has closed one five-year license deal with a “top-10 pharma” company. Armstrong says the company is currently speaking with three other major pharmaceutical companies. 

The company also has at least one major academic partner: The Institute for Cancer Research, London. 

This funding round will be focused on expanding Overwatch’s client base, and building out a sales and marketing team. At this point, nearly all client acquisition has come from word of mouth, says Armstrong. The company is also planning a move to Boston, Massachusetts, to shore up its U.S. presence. 

“The switch in the business now is going to be much more sales and marketing focus,” Armstrong says.