Startup nets $8M to diagnose more efficiently

Central Coast Innovation Awards | February 23 – March 1, 2018

By Megan Mineiro
Special to the Business Times


Patrick Daugherty, founder of SerImmune, aims to launch screenings within five years.

SerImmune envisions its groundbreaking technology could dramatically improve the diagnosis rate of patients suffering from everyday allergies to those at risk of cancer.

The Santa Barbara-based startup is developing new methods for mapping the relationship between antibodies in the immune system to antigens associated with infections, allergies, autoimmune diseases and cancers.

SerImmune finished an $8 million round of financing in June, led by Illumina Ventures, with participation from Merck, to fund the startup through 2019. With funding secured, the work that began in a research lab headed by UC Santa Barbara chemical engineering professor Patrick Daugherty is now just a few years away from being a marketable product.

Currently, a physician hypothesizes a patient’s condition based off symptoms and orders a panel of tests to be run to determine a diagnosis. But SerImmune technology provides a broader scope, allowing the entirety of information available in an immune repertoire to be read at one time, with just one test. This “hypothesis free testing” enables physicians to come to diagnoses faster, thus reducing the frequency of complications and mortalities.“They call that the diagnostic odyssey, the idea that there are a lot of patients where you are searching for an answer,” Daugherty said. “But if you could figure out all of your immune response in one assay then you could use that to pick which tests could be run to confirm.”

Daugherty estimates that one in five people have an undiagnosed or misdiagnosed disease. Some of the larger at risk populations that could be screened using SerImmune technology include immunocompromised patients, like organ transplant recipients or HIV-infected individuals, as well as military personnel exposured to infectious diseases during deployment.
SerImmune can also prevent the development of various cancers caused by infectious diseases, excluding those caused by the human papillomaviruses.

“By altering our immunity toward these infectious diseases, other than the HPVs, we can reduce the risk of cancer pretty substantially,” Daugherty said.

Daugherty, who recently left his tenured-professorship at UCSB to pursue SerImmune full time, said his research into the antibody repertoire began in 2001. During work on celiac disease six years ago, his research lab discovered their approach for analyzing blood samples could identify environmental organisms stimulating the immune system.

“That connection was really the genesis of the company,” he said.

While it took time over the years to “incubate the technology,” Daughtery projects SerImmune screening will be available to at risk populations within five years.

Daugherty said the startup, which is likely to launch another fundraising round at the end of 2018, is “leading the charge” in diagnostic development with the aim to market the product as part of a routine physical.

“We’re envisioning that if you can capture all this information in one lower cost assay, one test, then why wouldn’t you collect it every year,” he said.

Daugherty shared the example of Hepatitis Virus C as a disease that commonly goes undetected until symptoms emerge. Upwards of 50 percent of individuals who contract the infectious virus remain undiagnosed, leading health organizations to look to preventative screening technology.

Kaiser Permanente is one company looking to “push the envelope” of testing, Daugherty said, noting that the health care provider has implemented a screening program just for HVC.

The announcement last month from Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway to launch a new company to manage health care for their hundreds of thousands of U.S. employees is another example of a major company that could benefit from SerImmune’s technology, Daugherty said.

“They say they are looking for technology solutions. We are an example of a technology that we think they should be interested in,” he said, adding that major pharmaceutical, diagnostic and health care companies are already demonstrating interest in SerImmune.

Today the SerImmune team is expanding from their initial research site to a newly renovated space in Goleta, complete with a wet lab set to be fully operational in March. The startup recently brought on three senior hires, and expects to add additional specialists in immunology sciences, bioinformatics and software development.

Daugherty said he hopes to headquarter SerImmune in Santa Barbara, but is cautious of the challenges the startup will face on the Central Coast.

“We will stay here as long as it makes sense,” he said, adding that the pool of research talent in the Bay Area could lead SerImmune to relocate operations in the future.