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What the COVID-19 response revealed about deep tech startups in a time of crisis
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Benjamin Joffe
Benjamin Joffe

When Covid hit, it wasn’t clear what the effect would be on our organization and portfolio.  Should we keep investing? Can we operate effectively? How will our startups respond? How can we help them?

SOSV’s mission is to address the challenges of human and planetary health. And human health was calling. “In times of need, those who can do must do” is a mantra SOSV’s Managing General Partner Sean O’Sullivan lives by, and that infuses the organization. Many founders in our portfolio, as it turned out, felt the same way. 

In times of need, those who can do must do

SOSV had 40+ startups tackle Covid-19 in various ways – improving prevention, speeding up and lowering the costs of testing at scale, supporting treatment. Many took huge risks to pivot toward the crisis. Some failed, and some found new products, new markets, new funding and played a significant role in addressing the crisis. 

In hindsight, what we realized was that deep tech startups can be remarkable crucibles of innovation and discovery in times of crisis, a pandemic not the least. When faced with a lethal and elusive virus, the successful responses came from government labs and big biopharma as well as relatively unknown startups, including RNA vaccine creator BioNTech, the most standout example of all. In the race to address a COVID-19, a diversity of approaches has been a decisive factor in humanity’s successes, incomplete though they are, to rein in the virus.

Covid-19 and SOVS’s portfolio companies 

When the pandemic started, SOSV connected with our portfolio to discover who was considering a COVID-19 strategy. We funded the most promising projects and helped several new companies get started.

Among the 40+ companies in SOSV’s portfolio that took on Covid-19 one way or another, here are some of the most notable outcomes.

OpenTrons

The Pandemic Response Lab uses Opentrons robots to automate PCR analysis at scale.
Source: PRL

OpenTrons, which makes robots to automate liquid handling for biotech labs, explained online how to string together several robots to automate PCR testing. This in turn inspired OpenTrons to open their own testing lab in NYC, backed by the city and named the Pandemic Response Lab (PRL). This decision led them to raise a $200M round led by Softbank in September 2021, making OpenTrons a  biotech unicorn and an integral part of the biosafety infrastructure in the US and beyond for Covid and many other infectious diseases.

R-Zero

R-Zero met the surge in biosafety needs. Source: R-Zero

R-Zero came into being after the pandemic to create disinfection systems for indoor spaces. Working with the HAX team in Shenzhen, the company managed to deliver its first products and raise over $172M in funding in record time, making it the fastest growing startup in the HAX portfolio. Biosafety is part of the new normal and R-Zero faces huge demand.

Formlabs

Formlabs printers provided much-needed test swabs and many other equipment. Source: Formlabs

Formlabs shared designs of 3d printed swabs, protective equipment parts and even respirator converters. The company was already on a strong growth trajectory, notably with applications in the dental industry, and raised a $150 million round of funding in May 2021 on the strength of its revenue.

Strados

Strados Labs e-stethoscope enabled remote patient monitoring.
Source: Strados Labs

Strados e-stethoscope and used its breathing monitoring system for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) to monitor severe cases. A cough is a key symptom in over 70% of patients diagnosed with COVID-19. They set out to remotely capture and quantify these symptoms for early detection, treatment, and interventions, and alleviate the pressure on the healthcare system. Strados worked with telehealth companies to deploy devices for use in remote care and triage settings. Its device also became the world’s first FDA-cleared wearable lung device and smart sensor platform for respiratory health and used its breathing monitoring system for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) to monitor severe cases.

Circadia Health

Circadia Health’s camera-free bedside breathing sensor. Source: Circadia Health

Circadia Health was created as a consumer device to track sleep (and initially launched on Kickstarter). Covid gave it the opportunity to use its contactless breathing monitoring capability to avoid hospitalizations. Its bedside device that remotely tracks breathing using AI has been shown to help detect Covid-19 symptoms such as breathlessness. It received US FDA approval in June 2020 and raised a series A round in August 2021.

CASPR.bio

CASPR.bio: before Covid, Caspr was exploring multiple areas for diagnostic as well as agritech applications. The company focused its platform on a fast CRISPR-based diagnostic test for COVID. The kit is portable, accessible in a low-complexity or low-resource setting, and capable of completing analyses in less than 60 minutes. In addition, the kit does not require PCR equipment or reagents, just a fluorescence plate reader and simple laboratory equipment such as a heat block and micropipettes. They operated from the IndieBio SF lab with strong support from our team.

Renegade Bio

Renegade Bio: The founder was the CSO of another IndieBio company, and IndieBio helped him spin out this new company, which focused on speeding up PCR testing. The company developed diagnostic assays for early disease detection and prevention, personalized medicine, drug development, and health monitoring using PCR, NGS, LCMS, and other cutting-edge technologies.

Prellis

Prellis started as a 3D tissue printing company and pivoted to create EXIS, an in vitro human immune system based on a printed human lymph nodes. It can produce human antibodies specific to viral targets like COVID-19.  or an endogenous target. EXIS is faster, cheaper, and more humane than animal testing. Prellis recently raised a $14.5 series B.

Halomine

Halomine is one of the companies that was formed to target Covid-19, with a solution that extends the life of chlorine-based disinfectants. The company established a strategic alliance with Diversey, a professional janitorial services leader, and raised close to $10 million in a mix of VC and grant funding.

The SOSV team is proud to have supported – and to continue to support –  startups applying science and technology in the fight against COVID. If there is a lesson in our experience for startups and the world at large, it’s that diversity in approaches to hard problems is the shortest road to good outcomes. For that very reason, SOSV has backed hundreds of deep tech startups working on the hardest problems in human and planetary health. We know the answers are out there, and those who can do, must do.

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