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Grandson of Jonas Salk raises cash to find ‘genetic needles in the haystack’

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Jesse Salk, CEO and co-founder of TwinStrand Biosciences. (TwinStrand Photo)

New funding: Gene-sequencing startup TwinStrand Biosciences raised $50 million in a Series B round led by Section 32, a California-based fund focused on biotech, technology, healthcare and life sciences. Total venture capital funding is now north of $70 million for the 6-year-old company.

Double strands of innovation: TwinStrand, which spun out of the University of Washington, has developed technology in both gene sequencing and analyzing sequencing results to help it find what the company calls “genetic needles in the haystack.”

Conventional genetic sequencing isn’t totally accurate, which is fine when you’re trying to tease out DNA’s A-T-G-C pattern in a bunch of largely homogenous cells. But when finding rare, anomalous sequences — minuscule numbers of rogue cancer cells, for example — it’s important to know that the mutations being detected are really present and not just a mistake introduced by the sequencing process.

“If you can’t confidently see what the truth is, you’re stumbling around in the dark,” said CEO Dr. Jesse Salk. And TwinStrand’s technology claims to provide those results with a much higher level of accuracy.

The company’s tech platform is then able to make sense of the sequences and suss out the problematic genetic code.

Real-world applications: The technology can be used for early cancer detection, searching for cancer cells that survive despite treatment, and monitoring for cancer recurrence. It has utility in advanced cellular immunotherapies, and can be used in testing chemicals and medicines to see if they might cause mutations in human cells, removing the need for time-consuming toxicity testing in animals.

Elena Cant, chief operating officer for TwinStrand Biosciences. (TwinStrand Photo)

Latest developments: The company was founded in 2015 and has 50 employees, with plans to more than double headcount by the end of the year. In 2020, the company launched its first commercial products, and closed a deal in partnership with Foundation Medicine. The latter provides liquid biopsy analysis and will incorporate TwinStrand technology into its tests. The startup is planning similar licensing deals with other companies that will be announced later this year, Salk said.

TwinStrand is finishing the buildout of its clinical lab on Seattle’s waterfront and will occupy 20,000 square feet of office space.

Leadership: Salk is also the chief scientific officer and co-founder of TwinStrand, as well as an affiliate clinical faculty member at the UW and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and he sees cancer patients part time at the VA Puget Sound in Seattle. He holds an MD/PhD with honors from the UW. Salk is the grandson of the late Jonas Salk, the scientist who discovered and developed the polio vaccine.

Chief Operating Officer Elena Cant joined the company in January 2020 and was most recently at Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

Investors: In addition to capital from Section 32, this latest round included Soleus Capital and Janus Henderson Investors as new investors, as well as existing investors such as Madrona Venture Group, Ridgeback Capital, Alexandria Venture Investments and others.

Dr. Michael Pellini, a Section 32 partner and former CEO of the cutting-edge cancer diagnostics company Foundation Medicine, is joining TwinStrand’s board of directors as a result of the new funding.

Past rounds: The Seattle-based biotech company raised $16 million in January 2020 in a round led by Madrona, as well as $5.5 million in earlier seed funding and $6.4 million in Small Business Innovation Research grants. That brings the total raised to $77.9 million in venture capital and grants.

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