A recent number of studies and funding rounds offered a glimpse into what the new wave of quantum biology research may offer and how the new generation of innovative solutions may take shape.
Mursla, a U.K.-based startup, is an early mover tapping concepts of quantum biology for commercial applications, specializing in early cancer detection.
“Our technology utilizes some of the concepts inspired by quantum biology,” Mursla CEO Pierre Arsène said in an interview with Karma. “We might be the first company to sell a quantum biology product to civilians, not to super-specialized physicists.”
Mursla’s story is typical of a diagnostics startup’s journey — juggling pressure to show data and traction in a fast-growing research field as well as commanding investors’ attention with a robust path to profitability, showcasing both the promise and the risks in a wider field of quantum biology.
There are few investors willing to back these startups because the research is so new and their fundraising rounds are smaller than non-quantum competitors’ working in the more-familiar DNA realm.
If they succeed, the breakthroughs will be profound. Their research will extend beyond specific products and applications, to providing detailed answers about the makeup of our bodies and how we get sick and potentially lead to a new era of more personalized medicine.
Arsène met his co-founder Victor Serdio in 2012 when he lived in Japan while working for JPMorgan Chase & Co. A few years later they had developed an idea for a company.
“It sparked for me the idea that this technology can be used in medical applications, because I was covering biotech,” he recalled. “I came up with the healthcare angle, where we can see things in your blood that no one else can see. The objective from the healthcare standpoint was not to cut costs, it was to be able to detect things in your blood that no one else can detect.”
Mursla has since raised $2 million and expanded to a team of 10 people. It plans to raise $5 million Series A cash by the spring of 2020.
We might be the first company to sell a quantum biology product to civilians, not to super-specialized physicists.
So, what exactly is quantum biology? As an emerging field that attracts some of the funding directed toward quantum computing, it depends on whom one might ask. Mursla defines it as a “new way to characterize biomolecules in fluids by looking at quantum mechanics phenomena applied to them.”
While that may not be crystal clear, the point is that unlocking those biomolecules will open up more data than is currently available to researchers and medical professionals. In Mursla’s case, this will disrupt the world of cancer diagnostics.
Arsène acknowledges quantum biology is in its early stage and still showing the world what it can do.
“Quantum biology is still a research field,” he said. “(This is) our first commercial angle, otherwise we would not get money.”
Mursla’s current research and solutions focus on liquid biopsy and diagnostics, aiming to compile clinical data for further investment.
If they’re successful, it would be possible to detect some forms of cancer at an earlier stage.
“What we realized five years ago is when the tumor grows, it shares information into your bloodstream,” Arsène explains. “The information here is nanosize, small proteins. If you could capture them, it could give you a lot of clues about the tumor inside your body. If you can develop technology to do this, then you can change the space.”
Mursla has global ambitions, with the U.S. as its primary target market where investors have more of a risk appetite, followed by Europe and China.
And if everything goes according to plan, the startup aims to eventually offer a consumer product, a “chip anyone can use,” where you add a drop of blood and get a cancer screening.
The risks and challenges facing startups at the edge of scientific research are numerous: convincing investors the science is sound, making sure there is the right team for the job and, more recently, avoiding comparison with scandal-plagued Theranos. Not to mention reservations consumers may have about being guinea pigs in another founder’s ambitious plan to revolutionize the diagnostics industry.
“If you can develop technology to do this, then you can change the space.”
“Elizabeth Holmes’ example is definitely impacting every single entrepreneur who is working on breakthrough technologies,” Sathya Elumalai, CEO of Alavita Health, an at-home diagnostics company, told Karma earlier. “After the HBO film on Elizabeth Holmes, even public is scared and worried about using or testing new technologies.”
There is also growing competition.
Qnami, a Swiss startup specializing in quantum-based sensing applications, raised $2.6 million earlier last week.
“Quantum technologies leverage the non-intuitive properties of quantum mechanics to develop disruptive applications in fields such as quantum computing, sensing, and communications,” said Olivier Tonneau, general partner at Quantonation that led the investment round and Qnami’s new board member.
“The most mature technologies in this field use the extraordinary sensitivity of quantum devices to measure properties with previously unattainable precision, addressing applications in areas as diverse as microscopy, MRI or navigation,” he said.
Qnami is the only company in its portfolio with the potential for medical applications, with the rest focusing on quantum computing, artificial intelligence and communications.
Investors like Tonneau back the promise of a range of technologies, trusting the team and the solution to be disruptive enough. He called it “the second quantum revolution.”
In the field of cancer detection, there are other competitions that approach the challenge from a different angle.
“Our technology analyzes these DNA fragments to identify the mutations in each patient’s tumor,” the company says. “This allows doctors to select the most appropriate cancer treatment according to the genetic mutations identified.”
Mursla’s Arsène rejects comparison to Theranos, saying the beleaguered startup wasn’t trying to help detect disease earlier and was only looking at DNA.
And now there is a growing number of startups looking beyond the information DNA alone can provide.
“If you look only at DNA, you might not succeed — you need to look at all the information, protein, exosomes to win,” he says. “It’s encouraging, but you need more time and money to investigate.”