The pandemic is a reminder, in the most painful way, that science and technology are essential to the survival of humanity. As a result, it renewed public interest in the biotech space, spawning a biotech boom, particularly in the United States.
One of the startups benefiting from this upsurge is Filipino-led InterVenn BioSciences, a biotech company headquartered in San Francisco. In November, it raised $34 million in Series B funding to commercialize the company’s precision medicine platform for ovarian cancer.
The technology harnesses next-generation glycomics — a rapidly emerging subspecialty of system sciences — along with instrumentation and deep machine learning to diagnose cancer at its earliest stage. Founder and CEO Aldo Carrascoso, an Ateneo-educated Filipino who found success in Silicon Valley, used artificial intelligence to build upon the technology that his co-founder Dr. Carlito Lebrilla, another Filipino, has been dabbling in for over 30 years: a blood test which detects malignant pelvic tumors from benign ones.
By automating processes through deep learning, the time to analyze and interpret data from this test is cut from 12 months to 12 minutes. The additional funds will be used to commercialize this diagnostic test, service increasing partnership platform demand, and accelerate development efforts for the immuno-oncology treatment response and colorectal cancer indications.
‘The most difficult pitch of my life’
Carrascoso, who founded four other ventures prior to InterVenn (one of them is a global entertainment company Jukin Media, which now represents footage from more than 50,000 people across the globe), calls this the “the most difficult” pitch of his life.
“I used to pitch tech and I used to close ten million bucks in six weeks,” Carrascoso said, donning a Tesla shirt during a Zoom call with local journalists. “It took me a year to raise money for this because… people [either] thought it was too good to be true… [or] impossible.”
To raise its credibility in the space, InterVenn published a plethora of peer-reviewed journals, filed a “huge” amount of patents, and generated data. “We worked with some of the world’s largest institutions that make your drugs right now,” he said. “We can’t tell you who they are.”
Behind Carrascoso’s drive is a personal agenda: to find the cure for cancer, a disease which has afflicted his family. “My mother, in the ‘90s, succumbed to breast cancer,” he revealed. “Then in the luckiest year of my life, 2016, a very close relative of mine was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer, and that I found unacceptable. And then finally, the last nail in the coffin… a very close cousin of mine died of triple-negative breast cancer from the wrong treatment.”
He said: “I almost became a physician then someone told me, you just need to enable physicians.”
The secret is not the software
Back in Manila, Senator Cynthia Villar, a political figure in a position of influence, said at a senate budget hearing in 2019: “Baliw na baliw kayo sa research. Aanhin 'nyo ba 'yung research?” The remark triggered strong reactions, which brought to the fore the elephant in the room: the government’s apparent indifference to the plight of local science research scholars.
For Carrascoso, the lack of opportunity hinders Filipinos to make waves in scientific research — perhaps why even a Filipino-led biotech company like InterVenn blossomed in the United States, instead of the founders’ home country.
“It’s just the ability for Filipino scientists to practice. Wala lang oportunidad for them to do glycoproteomics here,” he said.
InterVenn BioSciences is Carrascoso’s first venture in the biotech space. And yet, backed by venture capitalists and fuelled by his ambition to cure the Big C, Carrascoso seems to have found the formula to succeed.
“If you think about everything I’ve ever started, they’re all unrelated. [Across all the startups I founded, the constant has been] my ability to attract and retain the best [people].”
His secret, he says, is “not the software. That’s for sure.”