Lab to Market Podcast: Deep Tech Startups vs Covid-19 with Khosla Ventures, Fifty Years and SOSV

Hi! Ben, Partner @ SOSV here- the early stage deep tech fund focused on hardware and biology, via our programs HAX and IndieBio.

This episode of our podcast Deep Tech: From Lab to Market (@LabToMarket) is a bit different from the usual: it is a recording of a live event we organized to discuss startups fighting Covid-19 with solutions for prevention, testing or treatment.


Episode Overview

This recording has 3 parts:

  • Part 1: Intro of non-biotech solutions, from 3D printing to robotics

  • Part 2, VCs present solutions from their portfolio (mostly biotech)

  • Part 3: Q&A

The speakers are:

Part 1

Introduction by Benjamin Joffe, Partner at SOSV

a. What has changed since SARS?

SARS was in 2003. In the span of 17 years, several important developments happened:

  • Low-cost genetic tests

  • Sensors & robots

  • Cloud solutions  

The challenge of current solutions remain costs, timing and scalability.

b. Prevention

A hundred years ago, prevention was mostly... masks. Today, we have a much better understanding of the modes of infection of viruses, and many new tools to prevent it.

c. 3D Printing

While we’re still far from the ‘3D printing revolution’, some 3D printing tech is able to supply useful parts quickly, at low cost, and on-site.

d. Protecting our face

We need to protect our face from others, but also from ourselves:

  • Many masks don’t work effectively as the virus is too small (~120nm). Verdex (SOSV portfolio) developed a nanofiber material that filters out particles >100nm. It is also more breathable.

  • HabitAware (HAX portfolio) ML bracelet helps prevent body-focused repetitive behaviors (e.g. nail biting). Covid provided a new use case for their technology.  

e. Disinfecting everything

The ‘new normal’ will involve disinfecting our living and working environment often.

  • HAX invested in several solutions from floor scrubbing (Avidbots) to toilet cleaning (Somatic).

  • Presso announced its dry cleaning robot could now perform disinfection, and saw traction from movie and TV studios.

  • Youibot, an autonomous logistics startup, repurposed their robots for disinfection with UV-C lights, and temperature detection.

f. Testing with devices

  • Several countries use testing stations that look like phone booths. Some are also using helmets with IR sensors for temperature screening.

  • Wearable device companies like Oura and Strados Labs are applying their technology to pre-symptom detection or monitoring.

g. Treatment

Treating the virus is complicated, and often involves treating the immune response, and support the recovery of patients.

  • Large and small companies are working on vaccine candidates,

  • Some try to repurpose drugs or develop new ones. 

  • The lack of equipment — particularly respirators — is being addressed partly by repurposing other devices, such as snorkeling masks and BIPAP/CPAP machines.

Finally, alongside this pandemic comes tremendous emotional harm due to stress, economic uncertainty and unemployment. Some companies such as Feel are working on low-cost solutions to help people improve their mental health.

Part 2

Seth Bannon, Founding Partner at Fifty Years

  • The Covid-19 threat is reminiscent of WWII, with potential deaths in the tens of millions.

  • WWII gave us many tech innovations. E.g. mass production of antibiotics, blood plasma as a therapeutic solution, skin grafts, flu vaccine, radar, microwave ovens, pressurized plane cabins, nuclear power and the first programmable digital computer. It laid the foundation of technical progress for many years to come. A similar rally today could build solutions for the future.

  • Everyone who can help should help, and 17 of our portfolio companies did.

  • HelixNano (from the George Church lab at Harvard). Working on a vaccine to counteract SARS-Cov-2 evolutions and antigenic drift.

  • BillionToOne found a way to run a test on Sanger sequencers at low cost and high volume.

  • Opentrons (a co-investment with Khosla & SOSV) low-cost lab robot automates liquid handling. It is deployed in multiple labs around the world to test covid.

  • Voodoo Manufacturing directed their cloud farm of 3D printers to focus on combating Covid-19 by producing PPE and more at cost.

  • Solugen, that makes hydrogen peroxide, realized they had the capacity to make handsanitizer and now do so pro-bono.  

Alex Morgan, MD PhD, Partner at Khosla Ventures

  • Khosla has over $1B under management, including a main and seed fund.

  • The goal is to ‘reinvent social infrastructure with technology’, looking for investments combining financial returns with societal impact (e.g. Impossible Foods, Color, etc.). We also have a list of companies responding to Covid-19.

  • Genalyte has a FDA-approved testingsolution that takes 15min. Current capacity is about~250k patients / month.

  • Luminostics designed an opticaltest that cane be run with a small device attached to a phone.

  • Pardes Bio is a recent investment working on a therapeutic using a protease inhibitor.

  • Prellis Biologics (IndieBio/SOSV co-investment) is a tissue engineering company that can 3d print lymph nodes ex vivo to produce therapeuticantibodies (here are a recent video interview and media coverage).

  • Some other investments focus on the distribution of care, particularly mental health, such as Ginger (remote service for mental health) and Flow Neuroscience (a SOSV/HAX co-investment offering a drug-free treatment for depression using a low-cost brain stimulation device, already on sale in EU/UK).

Jun Axup, PhD, CSO & Partner at IndieBio

  • IndieBio is the life sciences accelerator program of SOSV, based in SF and NYC and investing globally. It funded 136 startups (e.g. Memphis Meats, Clara Food, Perfect Day in the cellAg space).

  • IndieBio made a call to fund Covid-fighting startups for its new NYC program. Investments are a mix of expansion or pivots of existing companies, and newly established companies.

  • CASPR Biotech uses CRISPR for low-cost testing (covered by NYT).

  • Renegade.Bio was founded as a high-throughput testing lab.

  • ANA Therapeutics is repurposing an anti-worm treatment to Covid.

  • Halomine disinfects surfaces by stabilizing chlorine and lasts up to 30 days instead of hours.

  • SmartSteward can track outbreaks within nursing homes, using algorithms to scan metadata from electronic health records and lab reports in real time, identifying critical changing patterns.  

The biotech renaissance is strong, but still has many unknowns:

  • Are pandemics a new investable thesis?

  • How do we get back to work, protect everyone?

  • We need to stay nimble, and keep evolving.  

Part 3

Q&A by Julie Wolf, Communications Director at IndieBio

Q: How did IndieBio decide to invest in Covid solutions?

Q: For Khosla's startups, are pivots to Covid risky?

Q: How is 50Y looking at investing into Covid-related tech?

Q: What is your biggest challenge in finding companies to invest in?

Thanks to our speakers for their insights and to our audience for great questions! Speakers can be contacted on Twitter: Jun Axup (@junaxup, @indbio, @SOSV), Alex Morgan (@genomicsdoc or @khoslaventures), Seth Bannon (@sethbannon or @fiftyyears). Some of the questions are on Twitter for further discussion.

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