First, Vikram Bajaj helped create Google's sprawling life science company, now known as Verily. Then he joined Grail, an ambitious startup spun out of biotech behemoth Illumina to build a cancer-spotting blood test.
Now, as the managing director of a Silicon Valley venture capital firm called Foresite Capital, he's launching his next healthcare venture: an incubator for health and life science startups called Foresite Labs.
Cofounding the initiative with Bajaj is Foresite Capital CEO Jim Tananbaum. Foresite manages more than $2 billion, and has backed several cancer and genomics biotechs like Loxo Oncology and 10X Genomics along with drug development startups like Insitro.
Together, the pair aims to provide nascent companies with mentorship from top researchers and executives and access to a unique data-analytics platform.
The data platform will help the companies do everything from design better drugs to learn more about why cancer cells behave the way they do. The team designed the platform to address one of healthcare's biggest problems, Bajaj said, which is that we lack high-quality, representative data.
Today, most of our healthcare information comes from divergent sources. They can't be combined or used to answer any real scientific questions, he said. So Bajaj and Tananbaum created a tool that lets entrepreneurs do just that, he added.
Startups promising to analyze data to help discover new medical treatments have been drawing big investments in healthcare in recent years.
Insitro, a Jeff Bezos-backed startup, gathers data-computing experts and biologists to try to boost the speed and efficiency of traditionally tedious drug-development work. Led by Daphne Koller, the former chief computing officer of Google life-extension spinoff Calico, Insitro recently inked a deal with $84 billion biotech Gilead to develop drugs for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
Spring Discovery, another Silicon Valley drug development startup, is taking a similar approach but focuses on aging.
Bajaj, an associate professor of radiology at Stanford and an affiliate scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, expects the bulk of companies who join Foresite Labs will fall into one of three main categories: drug development, healthcare delivery, and early disease detection.
But getting access to Foresite Labs' new data platform won't be its biggest draw for many entrepreneurs, Bajaj told Business Insider.
Instead, he thinks most will be attracted to the venture's star-studded advisory board, which includes executives from Stanford, Harvard, Johnson & Johnson, and the Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub. All of them, Bajaj said, will be on-hand to provide guidance and mentorship to people who join.
Bajaj declined to comment about the financial specifics of the new initiative, such as whether Foresite Labs would take any ownership in the companies it helps start or offer external entrepreneurs financial incentives for joining.
"An entrepreneur joining the platform will find there's no need to reinvent the wheel," Bajaj said.
Healthcare's giant data problem
Today, the healthcare industry is awash in data.
Information from a wealth of sources, from clinical trials to fitness trackers to medical apps, gives patients and providers insight into thousands of specific health-related questions.
The trouble is, it's difficult to combine or probe that data in a useful way. Even with advanced data analytics tools, researchers often currently struggle to reach any real conclusions about how a certain treatment or disease unfolds. In addition, the hurdles have meant that many science and health researchers focus on rare diseases that impact a small part of the population, rather than big, societal problems like heart disease and cancer, Bajaj said.
This issue was one of the reasons that Bajaj and Tananbaum were inspired to create Foresite Labs, Bajaj said.
"There's a lot of data that exists, but if you try to formulate any problem you want to solve, to accelerate some discovery process — whether it's in basic lab research or clinical medicine — you find the public databases are instructive but incomplete. And they suffer from biases," Bajaj said.
Foresite Labs' data-analytics platform will help enable entrepreneurs to overcome some of those obstacles, he added. To create it, they took information from public databases like the UK Biobank (which anonymously tracks the health and well-being of 500,000 volunteer participants) and combined it with internal databases designed by their team. They aim to release the platform publicly at some point.
"Our intention is to publish it and release it as open-source code," Bajaj said.
'The lab of the future will be one where scientists are as much behind a computer screen as a lab bench'
There's another problem in healthcare that drove Bajaj to create Foresite Labs, he said.
Several new ventures have started to put clinicians and computer scientists in the same room in an attempt to try and solve hard healthcare problems, such as the lack of good drugs for common diseases. Yet the individuals in each industry continue to operate in siloed environments, Bajaj said. This bars them from making any sizeable progress, in his view.
Foresite Labs' answer to that problem is simple. It aims to create laboratories that combine experts from both universes under one unique company culture, Bajaj said. That will enable experts to think about new ways of approaching scientific problems and coming up with new scientific questions to ask, such as how to take very complex diseases and distill them down to elements we can understand.
Helping to ensure that both industries are represented is a scientific advisory board that includes people like Jeff Huber, the founding CEO of Grail, a former SVP of Google, and former board member of Illumina; Mathai Mammen, the global head of research and development for Jannsen Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson; Paola Arlotta, the chair of Harvard's department of stem cell and regenerative biology; and Euan Ashley, the director of Stanford's center for inherited cardiovascular disease and clinical genomics.
Using this type of workflow, clinicians and computer scientists would work together to come up with a hypothesis, design experiments to probe it, and then repeat the cycle, tweaking various components as they go until they come up with either a solution to the original question or a new hypothesis altogether.
"The lab of the future will be one where scientists are as much behind a computer screen as they are behind a lab bench," he said.