The last few years have been a whirlwind for Dan Landau, physician-scientist and cancer geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine and co-founder of C2i Genomics. In only four short years he started his own research lab, published several papers in high-impact journals, raised $12 million, and founded a liquid biopsy startup.
How did Landau—an academic who specializes in leukemia genetics—successfully pivot his academic career to launch a startup in a new field? And how did he manage to get financial backing for his high-risk work in a funding climate that shies away from newcomers? We caught up with Dan Landau and asked him to reflect on these questions.
It all started with an idea. Landau and his collaborators at the Institute of Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medicine wanted to create a new approach to the concept of liquid biopsy. Liquid biopsies have transformed cancer diagnostics by enabling minimally invasive detection. These tests detect small amounts of circulating tumor DNA in the blood, called cell free DNA.
But according to Landau, the tests could be optimized to be more sensitive. Current liquid biopsy technology uses deep sequencing to find known mutations in circulating tumor DNA, but it can miss the cancer if known mutations aren’t present or it requires large, clinically burdensome volumes of patient blood. Landau had an idea to make this test more sensitive by using a different sequencing and data analysis approach.
Instead of deep sequencing targeting a defined panel of mutations, his test uses whole genome sequencing and artificial intelligence to look for cumulative patterns of mutations associated with cancer. The test is designed to be ultra-sensitive—which he hopes will detect cancers in their earliest and most treatable stages.
But securing the funding to pursue this work was a challenge. “Technology development in academia is a very fraught endeavor,” he says. Landau is new to the cancer diagnostics field and governmental funders are often uncomfortable when researchers “stray from their lanes,” he explains. Coupled with the fact that he had never started a company made the endeavor especially “high-risk”, and, therefore, a potential for failure. But, if proven successful, his approach could also be highly impactful to the cancer field.
“At the time, we realized that we have something that’s quite transformative in terms of technology development and we were looking for people to help us develop it,” he said.
Enter The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research. In 2018, we awarded Landau a grant to pursue his liquid biopsy platform. Because bridging the gap in funding to support projects that transform clinical paradigms is part of our mission, we don’t shy away from such high-risk, high-reward efforts.
Landau received one of our first ASPIRE awards. ASPIRE, which stands for Accelerating Scientific Platforms and Innovative Research, is offered to several promising investigators or teams each year and is designed to fund innovative projects that address high-impact problems in cancer that fall outside the scope of other funding opportunities. It is also aimed at allowing key proof-of-concept questions to flourish in an accelerated timeframe. Landau’s project was a great match for our vision.
Two years later, in June of 2020, Landau published his results in Nature Medicine. And just a week or so later, announced his liquid biopsy startup, called C2i Genomics. The Mark Foundation invested in the Series A round of funding for the company. “The Mark Foundation was very supportive throughout the process of founding the company,” he said.
In addition to funding, we provided business know-how, helped company leadership hone investor pitches, and connected them with well-matched investors as well as advised them on some of the more nuanced details involved in starting a business. The biotech fundraising process can be long and lonely. New companies often hear many “nos” before they get a single “yes.” But Landau’s concept and company have enormous potential to fill an unmet need in cancer, and we are thrilled we could be a partner along the way. “It was great to have the team from The Mark Foundation be a sounding board and help us think through the process,” said Landau. The journey has been great for us too and has validated the impact we can achieve through ASPIRE.