Building Communities Kim Lachance Shandrow  | December 20, 2017

The Cure for Cancer May Come from San Diego. Here’s Why.

Attracting more than 34 million visitors a year, San Diego may be one of America’s hottest tourist destinations, but it’s also becoming known as a hotbed of next-wave healthtech startups. And a growing regional cluster of these disruptors is grabbing the spotlight in the oncology space.

Fueled by an established network of health-focused accelerators and incubators, a rising crop of young companies in the Coastal California city are busy pioneering new cancer diagnosis tools, improving existing cancer drugs and developing new ones. Janssen Labs (aka JLabs), part of Johnson & Johnson external research arm, is leading the charge by working with many cancer-focused tech startups to help refine their products and services within its 40,000-square foot high-tech facility.

Those are just a few reasons why Michael Krenn, a longtime local startup advocate and San Diego Venture Group president, thinks San Diego will continue to be a great place to launch a medtech company, and set the mold for a city poised to attack some of the most challenging health problems of today.

“San Diego has a long and respected history as a leading center for the life sciences,” he told Free Enterprise. “We are right up there with Boston and San Francisco, with our multitude of world-class universities and research institutes.”

Big and Small Working Together
Recent oncological startup graduates of JLabs include: Achelois, maker of nontoxic therapeutics to inhibit cancer tumors, and to eliminate the pain cancer can cause; Actavalon, developer of small molecule therapeutics that help to fight cancer cells; and CureMatch, Inc., which helps oncologists match cancer patients with the best medications for them through its analytic software platform.

Validating the city’s growth into a healthcare innovation tech epicenter — and its ability break down the biggest barrier holding our country’s startups back — San Diego was recently named the fourth best city in the U.S. for innovative startups to put down roots. That is according to the 2017 Innovation That Matters report, an extensive study of 25 leading American startup cities.

The annual analysis, conducted by 1776, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center (C__TEC) and FreeEnterprise.com, showed that San Diego is on the upswing when it comes to access to startup capital and network connectivity.

With a more affordable cost of living and better weather compared to Silicon Valley, and thanks to ongoing support from civic institutions — the office of outspokenly pro-local entrepreneurship San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer among them — the city’s ability to compete with established innovation hubs is looking stronger and stronger.

Venture Capital: Just What the Doctor Ordered
Two of the most recent San Diego oncology-focused startups to benefit from regional increased access to venture capital are Amplyx Pharmaceuticals, a cancer and antiviral drug development company, and Crinetics Pharmaceuticals, Inc., an endocrine cancer therapeutics firm. Amplyx is fresh off of $67 million-dollar Series C round, while Crinetics is flush with $40 million in Series A venture financing. These are but two of the recent standout success stories of many others to surface in the city’s vibrant life sciences community, where healthcare technologies, biotechnology and medical devices and diagnostics companies in the region continue to garner acclaim.

Driving medtech innovation, particularly in the oncology arena, are several San Diego universities and colleges offering health technology programs, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) at the top of the crop. UCSD’s renowned Cancer Therapeutics Training Program, also known as CT2, addresses the shortage of professionals qualified to oversee the development of innovative, new cancer drugs through its two-year intensive post-doctoral student training at National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers.

UCSD’s Moores Cancer Center is anchored in the midst of one of the country’s largest enclaves of pharmaceutical and biotech enterprises across the globe. More than 470 new and established small and large companies dedicated to developing oncology diagnosis and treatment innovations now operate in the area.

CureMetrix is one of them, headed up by co-founder and CEO Kevin Harris. The known artificial intelligence (A.I.) expert graduated from UCSD with his bachelor of science degree in cognitive science. He’s been a vocal tech startup advocate in the entrepreneurial ecosystem ever since, working closely with both the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and The San Diego Foundation.

Harris’s deep learning-driven medical imaging startup, which launched in 2014 in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla, Calif., uses A.I. image analysis software to help radiologists diagnose mammogram anomalies faster and more accurately.

“Finding tumors on mammogram images in dense breast tissue can be like finding a polar bear on an ice cap,” Harris said. This is why his company is leveraging its futuristic A.I. to help yield the most accurate mammogram readings possible.

Working Together To Combat Breast Cancer
Demonstrating San Diego’s noted connectivity across public and private sectors — and between startups and legacy educational institutions — many local entrepreneurs like Harris closely collaborate with UCSD’s Moores Cancer Center faculty and healthcare providers. Together, they’re shaping the future of cancer diagnosis and treatment from inside the center’s state-of-the-art facilities.

CureMetrix recently penned a study partnership with UCSD with the aim of supporting the university’s radiologists. In the analysis, the startup’s physics-based machine learning algorithm is being used to detect and correctly identify cancers, learning as it goes from mammogram images along the way.

So far, CureMetrix’s advances in computer-aided breast cancer diagnosis have not only drawn praise from across the country, but top-notch talent as well.

“We have attracted an impressive group of radiology and breast imaging professionals,” Harris said. “We value their clinical insights as we investigate technology intended to help them and their industry peers diagnose with confidence, quickly and at a lower cost.”

Starting Smart In San Diego
Much of the radiology tech talent CureMetrix has attracted was sourced from its own backyard in San Diego, but also from across the U.S.

“We have assembled the best of the best in radiology from our region and country to assist us in our mission at CureMetrix,” said CureMetrix chief medical officers, Dr. William Bradley, former chair of the UCSD Department of Radiology. “We’re confident that their insights will help CureMetrix improve clinical outcomes for breast cancer patients through earlier and more accurate cancer detection.”

“As tech becomes more prevalent, and more and more of the life sciences industry drifts toward tech innovations to improve patient outcomes, our medtech companies are going to employ more and more software engineers,” said Krenn, of San Diego Venture Group. “Local medtech leaders, like Thermo Fisher, Dexcom and Resmed, already employ hundreds of them here, and we only expect that to grow as we get recognized as a hub for personalized medicine.”