The top biotech stories of 2016


The top biotech stories of 2016

Biotech has been very hot this year as one of the fastest growing tech sectors as costs have plummeted, allowing innovation to speed up and bring us exciting innovations in health. But it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for investors.

The many Theranos scandals became a primer on what not to do when building a billion-dollar biotech startup and then we had exciting IPOs (and a giant lawsuit) from some CRISPR-focused companies like Editas and Intellia. Here we outline the many ups and downs of the industry in 2016. So strap in and grab your microscopes for this bumpy ride in the year of biotech.


Obama's Cancer Initiative could use a shot of Silicon Valley Innovation

The year started off with a presidential bang when Mr. Obama announced he was putting VP Joe Biden in charge of a $1 billion moonshot project to find the cure to end all cancer. Biden responded with plans to include big and little companies working in the space – including some of the breakthrough technology coming out of Silicon Valley.


Walgreens halts use of Theranos’ California lab

Walgreens started pulling away from Theranos towards the end of January this year. The drugstore chain was Theranos biggest partner and supplied a lot of the revenue for the company through several of its testing locations throughout Arizona. However, in what is now a sure telltale sign of the end, Walgreens halted use of Theranos’ California lab after learning of several faulty blood tests coming from the facility.


OpenTrons aims to be the ‘PC’ of biotech labs

Another cloud-connected biotech backbone called OpenTrons popped up this year out of Y Combinator. The startup provides robotic automation, in one more step to reduce the time and cost it takes scientists to run experiments.


At-home full genome-sequencing is now just a spit tube away

Sure Genomics, a startup in the DNA sequencing space, brought us a more consumer friendly and affordable genome sequencing technique at the click of a button in February. The startup offered an at-home service that could decipher your entire genome using a spit-test for $2,500.


23andMe and women's health startup Celmatix combine forces to research genes affecting infertility

23andMe came together with Celmatix to look at genes affecting possible infertility problems. The consumer genetics company gathered a massive amount of data from years of collecting our saliva samples and Celmatix wanted to use some of that data to help its scientists unlock the underlying reasons a woman might be having trouble conceiving.


Exo got $4 million to get you to eat more bugs

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are into some weird stuff and Exo, a startup making protein bars out of bugs, is definitely no exception. Nas, Tim Ferris and some other VC’s gave the startup $4 million in March to continue making crispy critters for our taste buds.


For less than $1,000 you can now pull up your entire genome on your smartphone

The price of getting your whole genome dropped even further in March when Veritas Genetics announced it could do it for less than $1,000. The startup took things a step further by announcing it would be including all that information on an app. For $999, Veritas said its myGenome product could deliver the whole shebang to your smartphone — including test results and the benefit of genetic counseling to help you decipher what the results mean.


Editas biotech stock drops by 26 percent over CRISPR patent dispute

By March we were starting to hear the first inklings of a patent war between MIT and UC Berkeley over who owned the rights to CRISPR-Cas9 — a gene-editing technology that could revolutionize the world. Editas, a biotech company formed by MIT, went public earlier in the year but the tech stock took a tumble right around the time the court battle between MIT’s Feng Zhang and Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna started getting underway.


Billionaire investor Peter Thiel nabs another $1.3 billion for Founders Fund

Peter Thiel has been a pioneer in investing in fringe industries like biotech. The billionaire pulled in another $1.3 billion for his investment firm Founders Fund in March.


You can now DIY your own DNA analysis with Bento Lab

Bento Labs, a biotech startup out of the UK, put the power of DNA analysis in the hands of consumers when it announced a DIY kit for collecting genetic samples. of course, the kit is kinda pricey — roughly the cost of a PC at $793 USD. But affordable enough to test a variety of products that could cost hundreds of thousands to farm out to a lab service.

Government report details Theranos quality control issues

The long tumble of bad news continued for Theranos, including a report from the federal government detailing the lack of quality controls within the testing facilities in its California lab — including the failure for Theranos to meet its own standards. But things were just beginning to go from bad to worse for the company.


Theranos adds a bunch of qualified medical experts and scientists to the board

Theranos soon tried to fix things by announcing it had created a medical board full of experts meant to steer it in the right direction and add legitimacy to a company lacking in scientific expertise.


13 women leading the life sciences movement in Silicon Valley

We ran a well-received piece in April showcasing more than a dozen women leading the wave in biotechnology 2.0 — including the controversial Elizabeth Holmes among them. Anne Wojcicki, Jennifer Doudna and Linda Avey were also mentioned.


Sean Parker is on a mission to solve cancer

Sean Parker, investor, co-founder of Napster and Spotify and former Facebook president announced he would be pledging a good chunk of his own wealth — $250 million — to eradicating the world of cancer this April. Called the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, the institute is made up of more than 300 scientists, 40 labs and top researchers in cancer immunotherapy from UCSF, UCLA, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, MD Anderson, and Memorial Sloan Kettering.

“We are at the bleeding edge of what’s possible with synthetic biology and immunology and genomics in terms of actually translating those discoveries into therapies that can treat and cure patients,” Parker told TechCrunch.


Regulators plan to revoke Theranos’ federal license and ban founder Elizabeth Holmes

The feds announced in mid-April they planned to ban Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes from her own labs and revoke the startup’s federal license if the company couldn’t turn things around. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services accused Theranos of continued failure to correct major problems with accuracy and competence and gave the company 10 days notice to comply


CRISPR creates a way out of regulation for GMO food

How much scrutiny will the federal government give to a new gene-editing technique when it comes to our food? Apparently not much. The Federal Food and Drug administration said it was okay for a scientist modifying genes using the CRISPR technique in a mushroom so it didn’t get brown spots because he was only snipping out the genes causing the mushroom to brown, not adding other genes like in traditional genetically modified food.


Theranos under criminal investigation

Theranos came under Federal investigation after failing to comply with regulators requests to get its lab up to speed. Piling on to Theranos’ woes, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California started probing into the blood analysis startup for possible criminal activity.


Genetics startup Twist Bioscience is working with Microsoft to store the world’s data in DNA

At the end of April, Twist Bioscience announced it was partnering with Microsoft and the University of Washington to store data in DNA. The startup makes synthetic DNA to store digital data.

“[Using DNA,] you could fit all the knowledge in the whole world inside the trunk of your car,” Twist Bioscience CEO Emily Leproust told TechCrunch.


AbbVie acquiring cancer drug startup StemcenTrx for $5.8 billion

Big pharma company shocked when it announced it was acquiring cancer drug startup StemcenTrx for a whopping $5.8 billion. But biotech is hard and hard science and research costs much more to scale than a social media app. The drug company purchased Pharmacyclics in 205 for $21 billion for a promising cancer drug. StemcenTrx was Founders Fund’s largest investment at $300 million.


Allurion offers gastric bypass surgery in a pill

Biomedical startup Allurion launched with an announcement it could perform gastric bypass surgery without ever cutting into a patient. All one had to do was swallow a pill and in 15 minutes you’d possibly get a smaller stomach. The controversial technique promised a faster, safer alternative to a surgical procedure. And while it hadn’t been FDA-approved in the U.S., the startup told us it was already selling hot in Europe.


Ripple is a Silicon Valley-based startup making milk from peas

We went to visit Ripple, a new Silicon Valley startup created by ex-Method soap and ex-Amyris Biotechnology founders. The startup had a new lab method using the pea protein without the pea smell or taste to give its vegan milk something closer to the real thing. It was delicious.


Forbes downgrades Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes net worth from $4.5 billion to nothing

Oh Theranos, the signs were all there. And the signs weren’t good. At the beginning of June, Forbes took the company’s original valuation of $9 billion down quite a few billion notches, leaving founder Elizabeth Holmes a net worth of pretty much nada. 


Jennifer Lawrence tapped to play Elizabeth Holmes in new movie about Theranos

And then a celebrity decided to play Elizabeth Holmes. Jennifer Lawrence, who’d taken on another role of a strong female entrepreneur in Joy, a movie about a new kind of mop and the home shopping network, which made her famous. Now she was buying into a new role as the founder of the beleaguered blood analysis startup Theranos.


Walgreens formally cuts ties with Theranos

We could make this whole year in biotech about Theranos, really. The drama of the fledgling blood analysis startup dominated the health tech industry as a cautionary tale. Walgreens, Theranos biggest partner and money maker, officially cut ties with the company over faulty blood test results and a federal investigation.


Former Twitter VP Katie Jacobs Stanton takes on CMO role at genomics startup Color

Twitter’s Katie Jacobs Stanton hopped on board the biotech train when she left her role at the social media startup to join Color Genomics in June. The former Twitter exec told TechCrunch at the time, “…the more time I spent with the team, the more captivated I became. I quickly realized I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore. I wanted to join something bigger than myself and importantly, make my kids and family proud.


Federal safety board OK’s the first CRISPR trial to genetically alter human

Jot this one down in the history books for the future of human evolution, a federal biosafety and ethics panel gave the University of Pennsylvania the go-ahead in June to conduct CRISPR research on human cancer patients. The idea will still need approval at the proposed medical centers where the research will potentially be conducted, and will need the OK from the Food and Drug Administration.


Theranos faces congressional inquiry over faulty blood tests

The Theranos saga continued in July, this time the company faced a congressional inquiry headed by House Democrats Frank Pallone, Gene Green and Diana DeGette over its faulty blood test results.


Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes banned from operating blood testing labs

And two days after a Congressional inquiry over those faulty blood test results, founder Elizabeth Holmes was banned from operating in her own labs. Many thought this would be the death knell for Holmes and speculated how the company would carry on without her ability to see what was happening in every part of her own company. However, Theranos kept Holmes at the helm, telling TechCrunch this was not the end of it for their leader.

Ava promises to clone high-end wines without using any grapes

A wine startup called Ava figured out how to make a genetic replica of high-end wines. Ava launched out of IndieBio’s biotech accelerator this summer with the aim to make the clone luxury wines like an $11,000 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and sell them at lower prices. We drank to the good news.


Ex-Theranos customer files a lawsuit claiming faulty blood tests contributed to his heart attack

Several lawsuits started to emerge against Theranos from consumers who claimed the company’s faulty test results gave them serious complications. One ex-customer said the company’s bad tests led him to miss vital information and he ended up having a heart attack as a result.


Elizabeth Holmes is finally presenting her technology to scientists, including a “miniLab”

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes tried to spark hope in the dying flames of her troubled blood analysis startup by telling the world she was finally ready to unveil the technology behind her company. Those hopes were dashed when Holmes instead presented a customizable tabletop “miniLab” for gathering blood samples and running diagnostics while in the wild. The scientific community was not impressed.


Unpacking the innards of Theranos’s new Zika-detection box

We took a good look at the new “miniLab” presented by Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes presented at the  American Association for Clinical Chemistry in August. According to Holmes, the miniLab can run a number of automated tests using blood and urine samples, including one she claimed is a first-of-its-kind for detecting Zika. Those tests are then uploaded through a centralized system that can collect samples, process the data and dispense results.

Holmes told audience members that the plan was to fast-track the device through FDA approval under the newly issued emergency use authorization (EUA) for Zika detectors.

It was something the company surely hoped could save it. But the move was not unlike a similar one that failed for the company when it tried to fast-track its blood testing methods through the FDA during the Ebola scare.

And, according to several experts TechCrunch spoke with, the new contraption wasn’t all that innovative.

We were promised hundreds of tests on a single drop of blood and all we got was this box.


Microsoft wants to crack the cancer code using artificial intelligence

Microsoft was back in the biotech saddle with a plan to cure cancer using A.I. One of the projects within the newly announced healthcare initiative involved utilizing machine learning and natural language processing to help lead researchers sift through all the research data available and come up with a treatment plan for individual cancer patients.

Other healthcare initiatives from the company involve computer vision in radiology to note the progress of tumors over time and a project Microsoft referred to as its “moonshot,” which the company said aims to program biology like we program computers using code. The researchers planned to discover how to reprogram our cells to fix what our immune system hasn’t been able to figure out just yet.

23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki has a plan to include better genetic data from people of color

In an effort to be more inclusive, 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki asked the community and people of color to help out by volunteering their genetic information. The company launched a standalone $99 ancestry service at the end of September as a way to offer those interested in their genetic lineage the ability to trace ancestors and relatives just by spitting into a tube.

“There’s an amazing opportunity out there by leveraging the power of some of these big groups to bring together all these individuals and their medical records and create a community that is really going to transform individualized medicine and personalized medicine and be a research powerhouse,” Wojcicki told TechCrunch.

CRISPR loses Nobel to tiny machines

Gene-snipping technology CRISPR lost the Nobel prize in chemistry for the second year in a row this year. Instead, the award went to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard L. Feringa – three men who developed the world’s smallest machines using molecular physics. Each will share equally in the 8 million Swedish kronor, or about $930,000 prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Last year the prize went to three other European scientists for their work in mapping out how DNA repairs itself.

There’s always next year, but a major legal battle between MIT and UC Berkelely over who owns the patent rights could prevent either scientist from attaining the prize yet again.


Deloitte gears up for the launch of a $20 million XPRIZE to eradicate cancer

Major government consultancy firm Deloitte announced in October it was launching a $20 million XPRIZE to fund science and research teams looking to put an end to cancer.

Deloitte said the whole thing would likely take about three years to fulfill and that it will be matching up teams of researchers, data scientists, biohackers and the like with those working in advocacy, regulations and other industry experts who can aid them with resources to speed up the process in the race to find a cure.


Biotech startup Zymergen nabs $130 million from Softbank

Zymergen, a Bay Area-based biotech startup using microbugs to make lots of crazy materials for different companies pulled in $130 million from Softbank in October. But the startup faces some stiff competition from its East Coast rival Ginkgo Bioworks.


Scientists made babies from mouse skin cells

In news of the truly weird, scientists successfully made mouse babies from the skin of their parents. The technology skips over the usual method of fertilizing egg cells with sperm and instead uses a method to grow the cells with the necessary chromosomal pairs needed for life to begin.

This is the first time something like this has ever been achieved and not a lot of the mouse cells from the lab led to live births, according to the study first reported in Nature. But it did produce some babies and if the technique can be perfected in humans it means women who can no longer produce eggs or two men could potentially have children together.


23andMe reportedly no longer working on next-gen sequencing

23andMe broke with most other major players in the genetic sequencing industry by dropping a more modern DNA sequencing method that takes a deeper dive into our genes. The company let go workers in its lab conducting whole exome sequencing, saying it was too much unneccessary information for consumers. 23andMe said it will continue selling its core product, a $199 kit testing for genetic markers having to do with health and ancestry.


Jeff Bezos, Mayo Clinic back anti-aging startup Unity Biotechnology for $116 million

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos makes another investment in the biotech space —  this time with a startup called Unity, which hopes to turn back the hands of time in our cells. Sometimes your body keeps aging cells around longer. These cells stop dividing after some form of stress,which is an anti-cancer mechanism that keeps damaged cells from dividing and growing out of control. But too much build-up of those types of cells leads to other problems as we age. Unity looks for ways to help your body shed older cells causing inflammation and other diseases linked to aging. Bezos and others gave Unity $116 million in funding for research.


Gut health startup uBiome has raised $15.5 million and is launching a DNA test for your poop

A lot of funding has started to pour into the biotech space and one of the hot areas has to do with our biome, or the bugs that crawl in and on and around our bodies to make us sick or healthy. uBiome is one of those startups in the space studying gut bacteria. The startup pulled in $15.5 million at the beginning of November to grow and continue research.



We did a deep dive on the revolutionary gene-editing technology CRISPR in November. CRISPR (pronounced crisper) stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. And it’s a sort of immunity system set up in the genetic code of our cells. Cas9 is an enzyme helping us cut into those genetic sequences and take out markers for certain genetic diseases. The technology has repercussions for the whole of the human race and could change several industries, but is in the midst of a series patent war between UC Berkeley and MIT.


Oral arguments for who owns CRISPR-Cas9 start next month

if you’ve made it this far in the timeline you’ll recall a serious patent battle is brewing over who owns the rights to CRISPR-Cas9, the technology allowing us to clip out certain genetic diseases. MIT and UC Berkeley both say they should have control of the technology. MIT currently holds the lion’s share of the patens, and one in particular that UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna says belongs to her. But who’s right is up to the courts. We heard word in November the date has been set for oral arguments from both sides of the bench.


Walgreens is suing Theranos for $140 million in Delaware

Adding more salt to the wound, Walgreens filed to sue Theranos, it’s former partner, for $140 million in a Delaware court. The case has been sealed so Theranos can’t accuse the drugstore chain of breaching its corporate agreements, but we’re sure we’ll hear more of the case soon. This latest case is just one of a number of lawsuits filed against the troubled blood analysis startup and could be the one to finally end it.