This week in our Startup Spotlight blog series is our 2021 XTC Healthcare Category Winner – Genetika+!
Precision Medicine with “Brain-in-a-Dish”
Six Questions for Dr. Talia Cohen Solal, CEO and Founder, Genetika+ of Israel
Dr. Cohen Solal is a Neuroscientist who received her BA/MA in Neuroscience from University of Oxford, a PhD from University College London working on the underlying mechanisms of schizophrenia of and then completed her fellowship at Columbia University developing translational tools for mental illness. She moved on to work in the Biotech Sector in operations, project management and scientific strategy in addition to advising other start-ups in their work. Dr Cohen Solal has through her academic career raised funds in 9 grants totaling $3 Million in funding, $12M of VC funding, published 10 academic papers and filed 3 patents all in the field of Neuroscience.
1. What problem is Genetika+ solving and how?
Despite all the astounding developments in pharmacology and genetics in the last half-century, surprisingly little is understood about the pathways or contexts of effectiveness, especially in the area of psychiatric illnesses. For many mental health treatments there are over 70 different drugs that can be used and there has not been a clear understanding of which ones would impact any particular unique brain, so drug selection was trial and error by spending vast amounts of money and weeks, months or years in trial and error on the patient which can whipsaw their life back and forth. What Genetika+ is solving is providing a platform that can rapidly profile the physiology of a patient and indicate one or a few drugs most likely to impact their symptoms. This saves money, allows more rapid iteration, and ultimately improves care by getting the patient symptom relief much more quickly.
2. What is your background that led you to founding Genetika+?
Growing up I liked understanding everything about everything – physics, mechanics, the universe. I found the human body the most fascinating and beautiful universe to investigate and was fortunate, when in high school, to win a summer internship at the National Institutes of Health near Washington DC. Part of the internship involved working on mental health causes and, as it happened, some close relatives suffered some mental health issues, so the topic resonated and felt personal.
As for the technique, I was going through my postgraduate studies just as this tidal wave of new genetics, cell biology, and data analytics was cresting in the early 2010s, and this was one of many methodologies that appeared promising.
I found I was very frustrated in academia with not being able to see the fruits of my labor, our lab’s labor, lead visibly to better patient outcomes. When we used cutting edge methodologies, I saw an opportunity to not just research their refinement but really get them OUT THERE and into the hands of doctors and patients. I also like challenging myself to learn new things everywhere, and I have to say I have never been more intellectually challenged than in trying to launch, organize and fundraise for a commercial enterprise.
3. What is unique about your technology and what is the validation status?
We start with detailed genetic profiling of the patient which gives a lot of signals for bioavailability and some effectiveness. Our unique addition is that we are able to grow a real sample of your frontal cortex cells in a controlled environment from stem cells derived from a blood sample from the patient. Stem cells can become any cell. We have been able to isolate the chemical “bath” of the brain’s frontal cortex – where most emotional processing is done – that triggers the stem cells to grow into a model of YOUR frontal cortex cells. These are grown in high-throughput screening wells, where we can then test the full spectrum of available drugs against your brain structure to see which ones are most reactive. Integrating this with bioavailability and the individual patient history and genetics presents a vast array of signals which are handled with the latest in cloud AI processing to derive a precision personalized prescription.
Just recently, we were pleased to receive the European CE mark for in-vitro diagnostic devices based on data from a multi-site study in which the Genetika+ technology demonstrated unprecedented accuracy in predicting drug response for patients with major depressive disorders, from samples from patients treated with antidepressants and followed for 12 weeks including drug switches and response recording. These results validated our efficacy so as to support its adoption as a much-needed clinical tool. And, actually, closing the $10-million Series A in 2021 was a great validation from the investment community that we would be able to achieve what we did, in fact, achieve this year.
4. What are your Go-To-Market ideas and traction received so far?
We are a medical diagnostic tool that will be used by doctors and clinical facilities, so we are aiming to get involved with that customer base. We have two clinical sites we are actively working with, Sheba Hospital in Israel and Jefferson Hospitals in Philadelphia. We were very pleased this summer to announce a partnership with one of the four HMOs in Israel, Maccabi Health Services, as well as a European Innovation Council Grant of €17½ million for go-to-market development, winning ahead of more than 1000 startup applicants.
5. What’s next?
Genetika+ is opening its first US site which will act as our commercial facilities, based in New Jersey. As we gear up for commercialization we will be obtaining CLIA certification for this site and start building our network for a US market launch. We are raising a Series B to support this launch. We are also expanding our platform to additional indications in the psychiatric space and partnering with pharmaceutical companies to assist in novel precision driven drug discovery and biomarker codevelopment.
6. Tell us about your experience with XTC and what were the benefits/takeaways?
XTC was a great experience because the biggest challenge at the very beginning of starting up a business is trying to fundraise and generally gain credibility when you haven’t yet achieved (m)any major milestones. Competitions like XTC become milestones, their credibility and rigor become important validations. And developing “buzz” from being top-placed not only helps with market and financial traction, but importantly, also strongly boosts recruiting, and when you’re starting out, your team is your biggest asset. XTC also proved to be a fast-track to elite exposure you’d be unlikely to get as just a voice in the crowd. After becoming the healthcare winner at XTC, one of the judges in the Global Finals where we pitched, Michael Zeisser of FMZ Ventures and formerly Alibaba USA, took an interest in us and eventually joined our Series A round a few months later and is now a close advisor.
Interviewed and edited by John Martin
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