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Immunai wants to map the entire immune system and raised $20 million in seed funding to do it

For the past two years the founding team of Immunai had been working stealthily to develop a new technology to map the immune system of any patient.

Founded by Noam Solomon, a Harvard and MIT-educated postdoctoral researcher, and former Palantir engineer, Luis Voloch, Immunai was born from the two men’s interest in computational biology and systems engineering. When the two were introduced to Ansuman Satpathy, a professor of cancer immunology at Stanford University, and Danny Wells, who works as a data scientist at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy the path forward for the company became clear.

“Together we said we bring the understanding of all the technology and machine learning that needs to be brought into the work and Ansu and Danny bring the single-cell biology,” said Solomon. 

Now as the company unveils itself and the $20 million in financing it has received from investors including Viola Ventures and TLV Partners, it’s going to be making a hiring push and expanding its already robust research and development activities. 

Immunai already boasts clinical partnerships with over ten medical centers and commercial partnerships with several biopharma companies, according to the company. And the team has already published peer-reviewed work on the origin of tumor-fighting T cells following PD-1 blockade, Immunai said.

“We are implementing a complicated engineering pipeline. We wanted to scale to hundreds of patients and thousands of samples,” said Wells. “Right now, in the world of cancer therapy, there are new drugs coming on the market that are called checkpoint inhibitors. [We’re] trying to understand how these molecules are working and find new combinations and new targets. We need to see the immune system in full granularity.”

That’s what Immunai’s combination of hardware and software allows researchers to do, said Wells. “It’s a vertically integrated platform for single cell profiling,” he said. “We go even further to figure out what the biology is there and figure that out in a new combination design for the trial.”

Cell therapies and cancer immunotherapies are changing the practice of medicine and offering new treatments for conditions, but given how complex the immune system is, the developers of those therapies have few insights into how their treatments will effect the immune system. Given the diversity of individual patients variations in products can significantly change the way a patient will respond to the treatment, the company said.

Photo: Andrew Brookes/Getty Images

Immunai has the potential to change the way these treatments are developed by using single-cell technologies to profile cells by generating over a terabyte of data from an individual blood sample. The company’s proprietary database and machine learnings tools map incoming data to different cell types and create profiles of immune responses based on differentiated elements. Finally, the database of immune profiles supports the disvovery of biomarkers that can then be monitored for potential changes.

“Our mission is to map the immune system with neural networks and transfer learning techniques informed by deep immunology knowledge,” said Voloch, in a statement. “We developed the tools and knowhow to help every immuno-oncology and cell therapy researcher excel at their job. This helps increase the speed in which drugs are developed and brought to market by elucidating their mechanisms of action and resistance.”

Pharmaceutical companies are already aware of the transformational potential of the technology, according to Solomon. The company is already in the process of finalizing a seven-figure contract from a Fortune 100 company, according to Solomon. 

One of the company’s earliest research coups was using research to show the way that immune systems function when anti-PD1 molecules are introduced. Typically the presence of PD-1 means that t-cell production is being suppressed. What the research from ImmuneAI revealed was that the response wasn’t happening with T-cells within the tumor. There were new t-cells that were migrating to the tumor to fight it off, according to Wells.

“This whole approach that we have around looking at all of these indications — we believe that the right way and most powerful way to study these diseases is to look at the immune system from the top down,” said Voloch, in an interview. “Looking at all of these different scenarios. From the top, you see these patterns than wouldn’t be available otherwise.” 

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Silicon Valley needs a new approach to studying ethics now more than ever

Next month, Apple and Google will unveil features to enable contact tracing on iOS and Android to identify people who have had contact with someone who tests positive for the novel coronavirus.

Security experts have been quick to point out the possible dangers, including privacy risks like revealing identities of COVID-19-positive users, helping advertisers track them or falling prey to false positives from trolls.

These are fresh concerns in familiar debates about tech’s ethics. How should technologists think about the trade-off between the immediate need for public health surveillance and individual privacy? And misformation and free speech? Facebook and other platforms are playing a much more active role than ever in assessing the quality of information: promoting official information sources prominently and removing some posts from users defying social distancing.

As the pandemic spreads and, along with it, the race to develop new technologies accelerates, it’s more critical than ever that technology finds a way to fully examine these questions. Technologists today are ill-equipped for this challenge: striking healthy balances between competing concerns — like privacy and safety — while explaining their approach to the public.

Over the past few years, academics have worked to give students ways to address the ethical dilemmas technology raises. Last year, Stanford announced a new (and now popular) undergraduate course on “Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change,” taught by faculty from philosophy, as well as political and computer science. Harvard, MIT, UT Austin and others teach similar courses.

If the only students are future technologists, though, solutions will lag. If we want a more ethically knowledgeable tech industry today, we need ethical study for tech practitioners, not just university students.

To broaden this teaching to tech practitioners, our venture fund, Bloomberg Beta, agreed to host the same Stanford faculty for an experiment. Based on their undergraduate course, could we design an educational experience for senior people who work across the tech sector? We adapted the content (incorporating real-world dilemmas), structure and location of the class, creating a six-week evening course in San Francisco. A week after announcing the course, we received twice as many applications as we could accommodate.

We selected a diverse group of students in every way we could manage, who all hold responsibility in tech. They told us that when they faced an ethical dilemma at work, they lacked a community to which to turn — some confided in friends or family, others revealed they looked up answers on the internet. Many felt afraid to speak freely within their companies. Despite several company-led ethics initiatives, including worthwhile ones to appoint chief ethics officers and Microsoft and IBM’s principles for ethical AI, the students in our class told us they had no space for open and honest conversations about tech’s behavior.

If we want a more ethically knowledgeable tech industry today, we need ethical study for tech practitioners, not just university students.

Like undergraduates, our students wanted to learn from both academics and industry leaders. Each week featured experts like Marietje Schaake, former Member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, who debated real issues, from data privacy to political advertising. The professors facilitated discussions, encouraging our students to discuss multiple, often opposing views, with our expert guests.

Over half of the class came from a STEM background and had missed much explicit education in ethical frameworks. Our class discussed principles from other fields, like medical ethics, including the physician’s guiding maxim (“first, do no harm”) in the context of designing new algorithms. Texts from the world of science fiction, like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, also offered ways to grapple with issues, leading students to evaluate how to collect and use data responsibly.

The answers to the values-based questions we explored (such as the trade-offs between misinformation and free speech) didn’t converge on clear “right” or “wrong” answers. Instead, participants told us that the discussions were crucial for developing skills to more effectively check their own biases and make informed decisions. One student said:

After walking through a series of questions, thought experiments or discussion topics with the professors, and thinking deeply about each of the subtending issues, I often ended up with the opposite positions to what I initially believed.

When shelter-in-place meant the class could no longer meet, participants reached out within a week to request virtual sessions — craving a forum to discuss real-time events with their peers in a structured environment. After our first virtual session examining how government, tech and individuals have responded to COVID-19, one participant remarked: “There feels like so much more good conversation to come on the questions, what can we do, what should we do, what must we do?”

Tech professionals seem to want ways to engage with ethical learning — the task now is to provide more opportunities. We plan on hosting another course this year and are looking at ways to provide an online version, publishing the materials.

COVID-19 won’t be the last crisis where we rely on technology for solutions, and need them immediately. If we want more informed discussions about tech’s behavior, and we want the people who make choices to enter these crises prepared to think ethically, we need to start training people who work in tech to think ethically.


To allow students to explore opposing, uncomfortable viewpoints and share their personal experiences, class discussions were confidential. I’ve received explicit permission to share any insights from students here.

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Boston’s Newest Unicorn: Flywire Raises $120M In Goldman Sachs-Led Series E






Flywire, a Boston-based vertical payments startup, has raised $120 million in a Series E round that takes its valuation to “over $1 billion.”

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Goldman Sachs (which has been ramping up its startup investment as of late) led the round, which also included participation from Tiger Management and Adage Capital Management along with existing backer Temasek Holdings, which used its pro rata, according to Flywire.

The new financing takes Flywire’s total venture raised since its 2011 inception to $263.2 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Flywire also announced it has acquired Simplee, a developer of payments software for the health care industry that had raised $36.4 million in venture capital funding.

In a phone conversation with Flywire CEO Mike Massaro, I learned more about what the company does and how much it’s grown. He was refreshingly transparent.

So, let’s get into the details.

More than software

Fundamentally, Flywire is a payments company but it has also built software to help process payments. (Which makes it both a SaaS operator and a transactions platform.) Its focus is on the education, health care and travel industry verticals.

“All three are fraught with a lack of digitization, and are inherently complex with legacy systems involved,” Massaro told Crunchbase News. “We think these areas have been underserved.”

Flywire CEO Mike Massaro

To date Flywire says it has processed over $12 billion in total payments volume for over 2,000 clients around the world. Seven of the eight Ivy League schools use it to collect cross-border payments, for example. As do hundreds of hospitals, including the top four hospital systems in the United States. People going on exotic trips such as African safaris can use it during their travel.

“We don’t just deliver the software that helps around payments,” Massaro said. “We actually move the money.” In fact, it claims to “move billions of dollars across 200+ countries and 150 currencies.”

Flywire has two revenue streams. It makes SaaS revenue off the software it’s using to help clients such as Harvard, MIT or Massachusetts General Hospital. But the majority of its revenue is transaction-based.

Speaking of which, Flywire is a unicorn with “well over $100 million in revenue,” according to Massaro. Despite being around for nine years, it’s still seeing nearly 40 percent revenue growth year over year, he said.

It also has 530 employees, which is 10 times the 50 it had just five years ago.

Massaro expects Flywire to return to profitability this year, and said the company has been “very capital efficient.”

“Prior to this round, we had $45 miillion in cash on the balance sheet, and now we have about $75 million to $80 million,” he told me. “And we don’t expect to burn a lot this year.”

Acquisition

In acquiring Simplee, Flywire picked up a competitor, sort of. Flywire has historically focused on the provider side, helping digitize their back offices. Simplee is focused more on the patient experience.

“We both help providers engage their patients digitally,” Massaro said. “They can help explain the cost of patients’ medical care, and how much they owe insurance, in addition to helping them digitize payments.”

With the buy, Flywire also expanded its geographical footprint, as Simplee has offices in Palo Alto and Tel Aviv. In addition to its Boston headquarters, Flywire has 10 offices, including locations in Europe and Asia.

Last year, the company expanded into Latin America and plans to continue that expansion geographically. It also plans to double down on all its verticals.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias







Restaurant management startup Toast raised $400 million in a new round of funding, boosting its valuation to $4.9 billion.

Austin-based Bill Wood Ventures and consulting giant McKinsey & Company put money in the round.

São Paulo-based co-living startup Yuca has raised a $4.7 million pre-seed round led by Brazil’s Monashees.

Source: Crunchbase News