Andreessen Horowitz, Google back Freenome in $65m round

Freenome, a medtech startup that combines machine learning and biology for early detection of cancer, has landed $65 million in a Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz.

Freenome has raised $65 million in a Series A round led by Silicon Valley-based venture capital giant Andreessen Horowitz, which also led the startup's $5.5 million seed round less than a year ago. Other backers include Google Ventures, Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, Data Collective, Polaris Partners, Eric Schmidt's Innovation Endeavors, Spectrum 28, and Charles River Ventures.

The latest round brings the total amount raised by the South San Francisco-based startup to $71.2 million.

Founded in 2014, Freenome is a liquid biopsy diagnosis platform that uses a combination of machine learning and biology to detect the cell-free DNA sequencing of cancer before it becomes deadly.

Traditionally, cancer DNA is found in a tissue sample from an actual tumor. However, tissue biopsies are invasive and can require surgery depending on whether the tumor is located. It can also be expensive.

"While tests to detect cancer early exist, they are not sufficiently accurate, and are riddled with false positives and false negatives," said Vijay Pande, Andreessen Horowitz general partner who is joining Freenome's board.

Through machine learning, the Freenome team discovered signatures independent of traditional mutation calling, such as immunological and metabolic changes in cell-free DNA and other analytes, that are more robust and cost-effective for early cancer detection.

"Our goal is to bringing accurate, accessible, and non-invasive disease screenings to doctors to proactively treat cancer and other diseases at their most manageable stages," said Freenome co-founder Gabe Otte.

"This funding will allow us to increase the number of clinical trials in collaboration with top researchers and clinicians around the world, enabling us to bring our product to market more quickly and equip people with knowledge and tools to live healthier lives."

To date, the startup has worked with 25 research partners around the world including Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health, University of California San Francisco, and Massachusetts General Hospital. It has also partnered with five pharmaceutical companies to assess generalisability of its software, as well as its application in other oncology areas such as pre-treatment drug response prediction.

Freenome is currently focused on the accuracy of screenings for four types of cancer -- lung, colorectal, breast, and prostate -- with the goal of getting FDA-approved. Other forms of cancers and diseases will be addressed in the future.

To date, its technology has been used on "thousands" of samples from patients who thought they were healthy but went on to develop cancer within a year or two, the company said.

The startup will be using the $65 million to expand clinical trials and bring its technology closer to commercialisation.

One of Freenome's investors, Google Ventures, has also backed Freenome competitor, Grail.

In January, Grail, a spin-out of the NASDAQ-listed DNA-sequencing giant Illumina, announced its plan to raise $1 billion by the end of Q1 2017 from undisclosed private and strategic investors.

The funding will be used by Grail for investment in large-scale clinical trials, as well as to repurchase a portion of Illumina's stake. As part of this transaction, Illumina's ownership will slide to less than 20 percent and Grail will be treated as a cost-method investment.

Meanwhile, four-year-old startup Guardant Health, whose genomic sequencing test for cancer requires just two vials of blood, has raised more than $200 million to date from investors including from OrbiMed Advisors, Sequoia Capital, and Khosla Ventures.

In August 2016, Google's AI research unit DeepMind announced that it was partnering with the UK's National Health Service to explore how machine learning could help doctors treat head and neck cancers -- particularly whether it can help reduce planning times from four hours to one before radiotherapy treatment is started.

Microsoft then announced a number of key cancer-fighting projects it has under way. Using machine learning, Project Hanover is seeking to make personalised, precision cancer therapy available to all cancer patients by helping oncologists sift through reams of biomedical research papers faster. Microsoft is targeting the so-called "molecular tumor board", the group that convenes to devise personal therapy to suit a patient's specific cancer.

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