Exai Bio to Launch

“To build a new venture from the ground up,” Dr. Hani Goodarzi, Assistant Professor, University of California, San Francisco, said. “it really takes a village.”

Exai Bio, a start-up company based on the University of California, San Francisco’s technologies – developed in Dr. Hani Goodarzi’s laboratory and focused on developing a next-generation liquid biopsy platform – launched big with $65M in financing. And as Dr. Goodarzi learned it takes more than just a great idea to launch a new product, it takes people who understand how a NewCo is assembled to launch a new MedTech product. Fortunately for Dr. Goodarzi and the cancer patients who could be helped by his work, UCSF has designed the Innovation Ventures department to help shepherd new healthcare discoveries into the market as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Dr. Goodarzi was born in Iran and studied data science and biotechnology at the University of Tehran. In 2006 he decided to pursue his PhD studies at Princeton University, and went on to begin his research at New York City’s Rockefeller University. In 2016 he joined the Department of Urology at UCSF, and eventually open his own lab at the University to continue his cancer research.

“When I first disclosed my liquid biopsy discovery to the UCSF Innovation Ventures team,” Dr Goodarzi said. “My lab was only two years old, and I was largely clueless about all that is needed to take our preliminary findings and turn it into a foundational platform for disease discovery.”

Goodarzi had developed a oncRNA pan-cancer, scalable liquid biopsy platform designed for early detection of multiple cancer types as well as residual disease detection and monitoring. This revolutionary biopsy technique would not only help detect signs of the SNRPA1 proteins which drive metastasis in breast cancer, but by controlling levels of this protein in cancer cells, doctors would be able to control these proteins’ ability to metastasize, or spread throughout the body, possibly even averting the disease altogether. This is defiantly a technology the University wants to advance.

Gemma Rooney is a senior strategic partnerships & licensing manager on the Innovation Ventures team. She became Dr. Goodarzi’s primary point of contact and “Virgil” to his “Dante,” helping him navigate his discoveries through the University’s innovation process. Rooney, with her PhD in neuroscience and stem cell biology, recognized the value in this technology right away. She knew that Dr. Goodazi’s science needed to be de-risked to increase its viability. This would require a large pre-clinical study that would prove his hypothesis. She recommended he submit his technology to the University’s Catalyst program, a program which grants seed funding between $50,000 to $100,000, sometimes even more, to bring the most promising research to the “proof of concept” point.

“I was introduced to Dr. Roopa Ramamoorthi,” Dr. Goodazi said. “She encouraged us to apply to the Catalyst program. The Catalyst award was the turning point for us; not only did we received crucial and timely funding to carry out a large retrospective clinical study in collaboration with the ISPY2 trial group at UCSF, but we also received mentorship and support through a network of consultants.”

Specifically, Dr. Goodazi was introduced to Dr. Kenneth Fang, who remains a core team member to this day.

“This ‘incubation period' was essential,” Dr. Goodazi said. “It allowed us to turn an abstract scientific finding into a tractable diagnostic platform.”

With the proof of concept firmly in hand, Rooney then introduced Dr. Goodazi to one of the Engagement and Opportunity Development (EOD) team’s Dr. Darya Bubman. This team also works within the Innovation Ventures framework to review submitted technologies and determine how best to assist them to market. Bubman recommends whether a technology would be best served through licensing directly to an established healthcare company, or if there is potential to build an entrepreneurial team and launch as a startup. Of course, there was always the option that the technology is not yet ready for market and would require further development.

For Dr. Goodazi, it was determined that his work could benefit greatly from the input of an experienced entrepreneur. Bubman had built an Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR) program for the University, based on her extensive Key Opinion Leader (KOL) network. The idea being that by pairing a research scientist with a seasoned entrepreneur, the researcher is free to develop the science while the entrepreneur is designated to develop the business. Everyone performs their roles best. It just so happened that she had a great business partner to assist Dr. Goodazi create a NewCo based on his cancer detection technologies. And so Patrick Arensdorf, a veteran in the diagnostic space, was introduced to Dr. Goodazi, and the team took off.

“We heavily relied on the network of KOLs and venture capital investors that Innovation Ventures has built to enable our financing round,” Dr. Goodazi said.

Exai Bio launched following an “oversubscribed” series ‘A’ round of financing that netted them $65M in investments. The company, now an autonomous NewCo continues to collaborate with UCSF, which remains a significant shareholder.

“It takes a village to build a new venture from the ground up,” Dr. Goodazi reminds us. “And in Innovation Ventures, I found my village.”