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- Coronavirus forced the pharmaceutical industry to reconsider the way it runs clinical trials.
- Hundreds were canceled as hospitals concentrated their efforts on dealing with outbreaks.
- Now, a new crop of startups is benefiting from the industry’s pivot away from brick-and-mortar sites.
- To date, they’ve raised more than $770 million towards ‘virtual’ approaches to studies.
- Those include telemedicine, drug shipments, and monitoring participants’ health through iPhones.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Coronavirus forced the pharmaceutical industry to reconsider the way it studies new drugs in people, known as clinical trials.
For fear of spreading the virus and because healthcare workers had limited resources, hospitals and clinics had to shut their doors to elective procedures and limit studies over the course of outbreaks.
As a result, hundreds of trials were postponed or canceled altogether, forcing the massive drugmakers that fund them to move as many as possible away from hospitals and into people’s homes.
“From an industry perspective and then from a healthcare perspective, we were all very unprepared for this,” said Rob Goodwin, a vice president for global product development at Pfizer.
Pfizer, a $190 billion drugmaker, is updating its trials process to be less dependent on brick-and-mortar sites. This month, the drug giant will launch its first fully virtual trial to study dermatitis, a typically itchy skin condition.
Pfizer’s not alone. An industry-wide shift has fresh business streaming into a new crop of startups harnessing the internet, broadly speaking, to run trials without making patients come into the hospital.
According to an analysis of US companies by Rock Health, startups taking new approaches to clinical trials have raised more than $770 million in total. The innovations include checking in with participants via telemedicine, shipping them drugs, and monitoring their health through iPhones or wearable devices.
That number increases to more than $1.63 billion when you broaden the list to also include startups that collect data to help with clinical trial research.
The genetic testing company 23andMe, for example, shares patient information from consenting customers with companies for trials. Paige shows researchers how cancer patients respond to treatments at scale, thus informing their trials before they start.
Virtual alternatives to trials aren’t new, but the pandemic has shed new light on them for investors and regulators alike.
“I think there will be a digital component to all clinical trials on a go-forward basis,” said Adam Goulburn, a partner at Lux Capital and a backer of the virtual trials startup Science 37.
Here are the 10 best-funded startups working to speed up the sluggish process we use to study new drugs, according to an analysis by Rock Health, PitchBook data, and Business Insider’s reporting. They’re listed by the total amount of funding they’ve raised, from least to most.
Bio-Optronics – $30 million
Total funding: $30 million, according to Rock Health
Latest funding: $30 million in January 2018
Prominent backers: Mainsail Partners
What it does: Bio-Optronics provides software to healthcare organizations, including for clinical trials. Lately, it’s helping large health systems conduct coronavirus studies remotely by, among other things, setting up secure communication between patients and investigators.
Medrio – $32 million
Total funding: $32 million, according to PitchBook
Latest funding: $30 million in May 2017, the company’s first outside investment
Prominent backers: Questa Capital Management
What it does: Medrio’s technology captures and stores patient data for clinical trials, including one studying stem cell treatments on coronavirus, for contract research organizations (CROs) and pharma companies. It’s compatible with decentralized trials, since the platform can aggregate data from multiple locations, according to a statement.
Medable – $45 million
Total funding: $45 million, according to the company
Latest funding: $25 million in a Series B round in May 2020
Prominent backers: GSR Ventures and PPD, a contract research organization
What it does: Medable helps drugmakers run decentralized trials by setting up in-home monitoring and virtual recruitment for enrollees, as well as telemedicine for check-ins. The company can combine trial data with electronic medical records, claims, and other sources.
Evidation Health – $62 million
Total funding: $62 million, according to the company
Latest round: $30 million in a Series C round in August 2018
Prominent backers: SV Health Investors, B Capital, and Rock Health
What it does: Evidation gathers patient data from phones, monitoring devices, and traditional health records to run trials and research, or assist other companies with their work. Its goal is to “measure health in the real world,” a spokesperson told Business Insider.
Paige – $75 million
Total funding: $75 million, according to the company
Latest funding: $50 million in a Series B round in April 2020
Prominent backers: Healthcare Venture Partners, Goldman Sachs Merchant Banking division, and Memorial Sloan Kettering
What it does: Paige applies machine learning to digital images of diseased tissue, helping researchers and physicians make decisions about treatments for patients. The company says the technology can also be used to help with drug development for cancer.
This slide has been updated to clarify the kinds of data that Paige works with.
Saama Technologies – $75 million
Total funding: $75 million since 2015, according to a statement
Latest funding: $40 million in March 2019
Prominent backers: Perceptive Advisors and Carrick Capital Partners
What it does: Saama lets drug companies see real-world data from its platform, allowing them to make swift decisions about their research, including for coronavirus. Pfizer, Gilead, and Regeneron all work with Saama, according to the company.
TrialSpark – $87.3 million
Total funding: $87.3 million, according to Rock Health
Latest funding: $70 million in a Series B round in 2018, according to PitchBook
Prominent backers: Sequoia Capital, Thrive Capital, and VC Michael Moritz, according to the company
What it does: TrialSpark connects drugmakers and patients using data from health records and then helps with the brick-and-mortar aspects of the trial. It’s supporting a trial by Harvard University’s Dr. Michael Mina about at-home coronavirus antibody tests, a spokesperson told BI.
Science 37 – $100 million
Total funding: More than $100 million, according to the company
Latest funding: $35 million in a Series D round in March 2019
Prominent backers: GV, Lux Capital, and Glynn Capital
What it does: Science 37 equips doctors and pharma companies with the technology they need to run trials in participants’ homes. It feeds data, including some reported by participants, onto researchers’ screens throughout the trial.
Verana Health – $130 million
Total funding: $130 million, according to the company
Latest funding: $100 million in a Series D round in February 2020
Prominent backers: Alphabet’s GV, Bain Capital Ventures, and Casdin Capital
What it does: Verana is assembling massive databases of health information meant to speed up research and connect patients to trials. Physicians can use the technology, for example, to identify rare disease trials for eligible patients.
23andMe – $791 million
Total funding: $791 million, according to the company
Latest funding: $300 million from GSK in July 2018, according to a spokesperson
Prominent backers: GV, Sequoia Capital, and the Roche Venture Fund
What it does: 23andMe shares data from some of its 12 million customers for research studies, according to the company. It’s not recruiting for clinical trials right now, a spokesperson told Business Insider, though it’s running studies on coronavirus symptoms and has several partnerships with drug developers. When 23andMe laid off workers in January, the company said it was scaling back on its work recruiting for clinical trials.