Featured Article

Parallel Health takes a biotech-forward approach to skincare with custom phage therapy


Image Credits: Parallel Health

No one likes to be reminded that their largest organ is a veritable menagerie of microbes. But Parallel Health turns the skin microbiome from creepy fact to potentially transformative skin care by engineering a custom cocktail of phages and siccing them on the bacteria that cause acne and other conditions.

Parallel Health emerged from stealth today at TechCrunch Disrupt as part of the Startup Battlefield, revealing (beyond their existence) $2.3 million in pre-seed funding and a first product, a custom phage therapy skin serum.

The company got its start out of a project at a larger cosmetics company, where they were attempting to prove the efficacy of phage therapy to treat chronic skin conditions. The team found that some people benefited profoundly and others not at all, and concluded that what was needed was a serum with phages customized just for the user. This veered too deep into biotech for the parent company, so Natalise Kalea Robinson and Nathan Brown ended up founding Parallel to pursue the idea.

A word on phages. These things — they’re not alive, Brown made clear — are basically viruses that target bacteria and are perfectly safe and naturally occurring. In fact, they were a promising treatment method in the early 20th century before antibiotics were discovered; even after penicillin (far more effective at the time) was discovered, some places continued their research into what you might call bacteria’s nemesis.

But recently, as antibiotic-resistant strains of staphylococcus and tuberculosis gain ground and force ever more diverse treatment methods, that phage therapy has seen a resurgence of interest. And it was that which drove the experiment that led to Parallel Health’s founding, though a number of other factors influenced their approach.

For one thing, dermatology is an established science, but it’s one of many fields where cheap, fast genetic sequencing is set to make serious inroads. What lives on our skin? We have a general idea, for sure: a set of bacteria and other microbes in our pores, follicles, under our nails — it’s not pleasant to think about, but it’s the truth. We’re walking ecosystems, and we can fall out of equilibrium (though “natural balance” is an exaggeration) by something as simple as adopting a dog or moving in with a partner.

“Dermatologists are flying blind,” said Brown. “They’re using antibiotics in an empirical way: they try one, and if it doesn’t work, they try another. We need to start looking at the microbiome in combination with phenotypes [i.e., visible characteristics].”

Just one problem: No one actually knows what the skin microbiome is “supposed” to look like. After some initial data collection to prove out the idea, said Kalea Robinson, “when we compared all of the microbes that we had to the public databases, 90% of what we cultured was novel.”

“No one knows what the microbiome looks like on average! We had to go out and recruit people from all across the U.S., 18 to 87, men and women, from all ethnicities, from every state, and have them swab their face and body,” she continued. “From there we started to look for patterns, and we developed our own bioalgorithms. We tried to be as broad as possible, because no one has done this before — it’s part art and part science.”

“This took a long time, by the way,” she added.

What they learned from this data allowed them to define eight general skin types that are specific enough to allow them to be treated individually but different enough that a treatment for one won’t work on another. Factors include bacteria overgrowth, the presence or absence of certain beneficial or harmful species, levels of hydration, a “diversity score” (meaning more types of microbes), and so on.

“I think we could have done 100 types, but it doesn’t really make sense as a consumer product. Eight is true to the data but feels approachable as a patient,” Kalea Robinson explained.

Image Credits: Parallel Health

The service they offer, then, is this: You get a testing kit and swab your face, then send it in. They use a “proprietary automated process” to analyze it (via sequencing giant Illumina), putting you in one of the eight types, after which you receive the serum infused with phages engineered to attack the bad bacteria in that category. Brown noted that there’s no CRISPR or other high-tech bioengineering required, saying, “It’s totally unnecessary.” (Incidentally, additional or more specific serums can be produced, but that’s more of a niche case.)

The catch — and part of what has made treatment of skin problems so difficult in the past — is that your microbiome changes both regularly and spontaneously. You likely have a different type in the summer and winter, for instance, but you may acquire a different type if you move in with someone, or start playing a sport, or go swimming a lot. So users would take the test every six months or so or until a pattern is recognized.

As the company provides this service, it builds a library of novel data around the microbiome. This will inform their own product and research, perhaps leading to more and better options, but it’s also just fundamentally interesting to science, since no one has done this kind of long-term, lateral testing before.

“When the doctors first hear about it, they’re skeptical, but when they look into the scientific literature, they find more than they expected. Like, Staphylococcus aureus is involved in lymphoma. It’s just a matter of looking,” said Brown. “Using the test, we can figure out unknown unknowns, so we can improve people’s understanding of their own systems as well as the medical corpus.”

That could be useful beyond the world of cosmetics and treating common maladies — though the founders were clear that there is no plan yet, outside some talks to license certain phages, to dive deeper into the therapeutic side of things.

“We do recognize that there’s interest there,” said Kalea Robinson. “We were approached for acquisition before we were a year old, for our data. But we want to be responsible with the data —  it’s our moat for now.”

The company’s site and service is now live, and they’re taking orders to ship as soon as possible — tomorrow, if you’re on the short end of the thousands of people who have signed up on the waiting list.

Viome, a microbiome startup, raises $86.5M, inks distribution deal with CVS

More TechCrunch

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

2 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more