NEW YORK – A recent, unspecified investment from Accenture Ventures gave Ocean Genomics a welcome cash infusion. But it was the opportunity to reach larger potential customers that has the Pittsburgh-based bioinformatics startup really excited.
Last month, the Accenture Ventures investment arm of consulting firm Accenture announced that it had made a strategic investment in Ocean Genomics. As part of the deal, Ocean joined Project Spotlight, an Accenture Ventures program that helps connect software startups with major public companies.
Participation in Project Spotlight gives companies like Ocean Genomics access to firms on the Forbes Global 2000 list through relationships that Accenture has cultivated with its consulting services. Ocean Cofounder Eric Schultz, a strategic adviser to the company, said that through Project Spotlight, Accenture curates new and emerging technologies to help its clients advance their missions and solve problems.
The firm has been a partner with Amazon Web Services for about two years and is now working with the recently launched Amazon Omics service. In addition to providing cloud-hosting credits and technical support to optimize Ocean software for the AWS cloud, AWS has helped introduce the startup to sales prospects in life sciences, according to Schultz, but the Accenture relationship could be more impactful.
"Accenture represents a scale change," said Ocean Cofounder and CEO Carl Kingsford. "They would be able to bring us into larger pharma, like top 25." The consulting firm could also open up opportunities for long-term projects, Schultz added.
Ocean has several drug-discovery programs underway to find signature responses or biomarkers or to evaluate preclinical data. Schultz did not mention any names, but suggested that the partners are not major pharmaceutical firms.
Ocean Genomics markets software primarily to predict mRNA expression for in silico drug discovery, but the technology has been used for other purposes.
The company spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2018 with technology that Kingsford and Cofounder and Chief Technology Officer Rob Patro built in the academic setting — Kingsford at Carnegie Mellon and Patro at Stony Brook University. "We really felt that that work doing transcriptomic analysis and gene expression analysis could be useful in the commercial sector," Kingsford said.
Ocean received its only other investment in 2019, from an individual. The company has not named the earlier investor or funding amount, though Schultz said that Ocean has been "capital efficient" with the money it has landed. "I don't believe in burning up big pots of money and explaining it to investors later."
Ocean did not launch its first product, the TxomeAI transcriptome analysis and biomarker discovery platform, until March 2021. "We want to build something substantial, so we were very patient" in developing technology that would address real problems in the marketplace, Schultz said.
TxomeAI was built "to extract every piece of information possible from RNA sequencing data," Kingsford said. While it was initially designed for RNA-seq analysis, TxomeAI can process DNA and other omics data as well.
From that starting point, Ocean created a curated transcriptomic database called DeepSea, mostly from publicly available human RNA-seq samples. DeepSea, which also includes metadata and pre-trained artificial intelligence models, now contains about 112,000 samples and more than 25 billion data points, according to Kingsford. This database can be combined with customers' data to broaden analysis.
The company's other product is a machine learning system called DiscoverAI to support biomarker and drug discovery. "We develop a hypothesis for the particular patients that would respond to a particular treatment or help explain how [a customer's] drug candidate is working," Kingston explained.
Schultz described TxomeAI as a gene expression analysis platform, identifying which genes are overexpressed or underexpressed in a sample, then finding things like fusions and dysregulated pathways. DiscoverAI then takes a collection of profiled samples and applies machine learning to answer researchers' questions.
"We get more usable data out of the RNA-seq files" with this kind of analysis, said Schultz, who is also a strategic adviser to the Carnegie Mellon Center for Machine Learning and Health. It happens in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks because it automates processes that used to require manual adjustments by bioinformaticists.
With the new backing from Accenture, Kingsford said that Ocean is hoping to double the size of the DeepSea database in the next year or so. The firm is also looking to extend its other two products by improving the efficiency and accuracy of its computational models and by starting to integrate its technology with software from other Accenture clients.
Kurt Schalper, a pathologist and director of the Translational Immuno-Oncology Laboratory in the Yale Cancer Center, has been using Ocean software for about a year and a half.
The Yale translational lab, which includes discovery, clinical trials, and interpretation of trial results, has employed TxomeAI for transcriptomic and genomic analysis in the context of a clinical trial for an experimental immunotherapy for small cell lung cancer.
Schalper decided to give it a try because he was disappointed in the slow uptake of RNA-based clinical diagnostics outside of breast cancer.
"Transcriptomic analysis has its own technical environment," he said. "The complexity of RNA sequencing analysis and then proper integration with DNA analysis is not an easy task."
Schalper said that Ocean was able to provide the curated data and software his lab was looking for to advance biomarker discovery that could later inform diagnostic and therapeutic development.
"I think there is a big opportunity still in RNA to impact not only the drug discovery biology type of environment, but potentially to also do great diagnostics that we can actually use way beyond what we're doing today," he said.
Schultz said that the company's mission is to help pharma, biotech, and their academic partners with "data-driven decisions to make more effective therapies and diagnostics."
The endgame for Ocean is supporting drug discovery, from early research to clinical trials.
"We really believe that the use of gene expression in RNA-seq is going to be even more and more essential in the drug discovery pipeline early on to help avoid some embarrassing late-stage failures to increase the probability of success early on," Kingsford said.
Not everything works, of course. Ocean has dissolved a partnership with Korean pharma firm Geninus. Two years ago, the companies came together to develop RNA-based biomarkers and advance research and clinical applications as part of Ocean's TxomeAI early-access program.
Geninus had planned on using the TxomeAI platform to widen its CancerScan clinical diagnostics platform for its hospital customers and for biomarker discovery services with academic and biotechnology clients.
However, Schultz said the partnership reached an early milestone, and then Ocean took the program in house after Geninus executed an initial public offering in November 2021 and reassessed its corporate strategy.
Schultz said that Ocean recently had a poster accepted for the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting, but the details are embargoed until just ahead of the April conference. The firm has also submitted some proposals for the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting in June.