As Illumina Accelerator turns five, it welcomes four new startups to its ninth funding cycle. Over the last half-decade, Illumina Accelerator, the first business accelerator focused on creating an innovative ecosystem for early-stage genomics startups, has invested in 29 companies and continues to see entrepreneurs push the envelope with breakthrough applications in genomics. During the six-month funding cycle, Illumina Accelerator offers selected startups access to capital, genomics and sequencing expertise, business coaching, as well as lab and office space at Illumina’s San Francisco Bay Area campus.
The new genomics startups selected for the ninth funding cycle include:
- BioAmp Diagnostics, Inc., a precision diagnostics company from Berkeley, California, is developing rapid diagnostics to counteract antibiotic resistance and empower physicians to treat patients with the right antibiotic at the right time.
- Celldom, Inc., a research tools company from Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, is developing next generation, single-cell analysis technology to advance research, drug discovery and development by illuminating diversity in cell populations.
- Juno Bio Limited, a women’s health company from London, UK, is building a leading vaginal microbiome platform for unravelling the black box of women's health and fertility.
- TriAxia Health, Inc., a digital health company from Boston, Massachusetts, is building a platform to manage patients with rare diseases across multiple hospitals, providing clinical and molecular data and analytics for the payers, providers and life science companies seeking to improve their care.
Illumina Accelerator co-founders, Mostafa Ronaghi and Amanda Cashin, discuss how Illumina Accelerator has evolved over the last five years, some of the impressive success stories they’ve seen to date and what they look for in investments for each cycle.
We’ve seen some big announcements lately from some of the graduates. How proud does that make you both?
Amanda: We’re so proud of our graduates’ progress as they advance very diverse genomic applications. NextGen Jane recently announced its $9 million Series A to advance for women’s health. Checkerspot just announced its $13 million Series A to bring performance materials created through genomics to a wide range of industries starting with products for the outdoor recreation market. Overall, our startups have raised a total of approximately $190 million in funding from leading life science and tech investors.
Mostafa: There’s always a level of risk when you’re just starting out, but that $190 million number is remarkable to see, and the recent announcements are just a few examples of the diversity in breakthrough applications for genomics advancing everything from women’s health, to sporting gear, to therapeutics.
Later this year, Illumina Accelerator will be celebrating the five-year anniversary of its first investment class. How has it evolved over the last half-decade and where do you want to see it go from here?
Mostafa: Over the last five years, we’ve worked to build Illumina Accelerator’s best-in-class reputation and earned respect from entrepreneurs, investors and industry partners. Over the years, we received applications from 41 countries. Impressively, we received applications from entrepreneurs as young as 15 years old. Genomics is expanding to future generations and as the $100 genome becomes reality, we’ll continue to see a more diverse group of entrepreneurs in this space. Looking ahead, we’re working to expand Illumina Accelerator globally so we can provide more opportunities for people around the world.
Amanda: Since our inception in 2014, DNA sequencing technology has rapidly evolved. When we started, we had the HiSeq System and now we have the NovaSeq System. Our startups are now able to generate even more data because of the evolution of the technology. As the technology advances and the cost of sequencing continues to trend downward, genomic startups can do more and more. Genomics is still in the early innings, there’s so much potential still to come.
Why do you think genomics startups apply to Illumina Accelerator? What are some of the most important tools you offer them?
Amanda: It takes a village to build a company. We now have a portfolio of graduates who are partnering with us to access Illumina’s genomics expertise and our network for advice. When we demonstrate that we are a good partner to entrepreneurs and investors, we’ll continue to attract great teams. When the startups join Illumina Accelerator, we surround them with a network of resources, including access to coaches, advisors, fellow graduates, entrepreneurs, investors and technology experts to help them build great companies.
Mostafa: We have established relationships with the venture capital community and have worked to narrow the gap between entrepreneurs and the VCs who are looking to invest in the present and future of genomics. We help these early-stage companies understand what those VCs are looking for and how best to raise the capital they need to make their vision come to life. When they want to do fundraising, they come to us for advice. We help them with strategy before, during and after their time at Illumina Accelerator and take pride in the guidance we provide to help them realize their goals. The entrepreneurs know that we’re fighting for their best interests and will help them succeed.
What’s the most important quality you look for in genomics startups that apply to Illumina Accelerator? And why do you only accept a few companies for each cycle?
Mostafa: There are a combination of qualities we look for but most importantly, we look at the team. It’s crucial to have alignment and good dynamic within a company. We’re looking for teams that have passion and can clearly articulate what they want to achieve. Can they inspire us, their peers and the industry? Can they survive the ups and downs of launching and maintaining a business? We believe in quality over quantity. We bring in top entrepreneurs and provide hands-on customized guidance to help them grow and achieve their goals.
Amanda: Similar to other company creation engines, we work closely with promising entrepreneurs and we roll up our sleeves to help co-found the startups. What sets us apart is that we are laser-focused on genomics, and we partner with a few high-quality teams for each funding cycle. Some are first time entrepreneurs, and some aren’t. Experience doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, but team dynamic can make or break a company that’s just getting started.
Are there any genomic application areas that you would like to see outside of what you’ve already seen with Illumina Accelerator companies?
Mostafa: We’re living in a very digital world, and we have to digitize to keep up. I would love to see more companies focused on the gaming industry. When you look at the current state of the gaming industry, much of the technology has pushed people into an anti-social and solitary lifestyle. DNA-based gaming could bring people back. I would really love to see what that would look like.
Amanda: We have a diverse mix of genomics investments in our portfolio. About half are focused on therapeutics and about one quarter are developing novel diagnostics. The remainder of our portfolio is focused on direct-to-consumer, software and synthetic biology applications. We’re passionate about the new era of genomics-driven therapeutics and believe genomics is a powerful tool to enable the discovery of new therapeutic targets, new ways to select patients for clinical trials, and new ways to bring medicines to patients who will benefit the most. We’re currently recruiting for our tenth funding cycle and we look forward to partnering with the next group of entrepreneurs who are pushing the boundaries of genomics on the horizon.
For more information on Illumina Accelerator and to apply, visit the website. Applications for the tenth class are due May 1, 2019.