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'The outlier thing didn't work out' -- Biotech CEOs reflect on Theranos' impact on the industry

Elizabeth Holmes, TheranosCourtesy of Theranos

One of the biggest stories in tech and healthcare over the past year and a half has been the saga of Theranos.

The blood-testing company once carried a $9 billion valuation and the promise of running multiple tests on just a single drop of blood.

But, starting in October 2015, cracks began to show, calling into question its science and its transparency. By the end of last year, a northern California lab was shut down, the company voided “tens of thousands” of blood tests, and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was barred for two years from running a clinical lab.

The company has since stopped doing all lab testing, instead pivoting to focusing solely on developing its technology.

Which left us here at Business Insider curious: Has there been a “Theranos effect” on biotech investing?

That is, are emerging drug companies facing a higher burden of proof — or more scepticism — than they did a few years ago?

It’s something the health-tech sector has observed for sure, and it’s still a topic everyone seems to have thoughts about. At the JPMorgan healthcare conference in San Francisco earlier in January, we decided to ask around.

The short answer is: No. Biotech companies in the business of developing drugs live in a much different world than diagnostics companies like Theranos. Many executives, even those running companies with skyrocketing valuations, were quick to point to the differences between their firms and Theranos.

Everything from its decision to market the blood tests directly to consumers, to its secretive culture, to its board of directors that lacked (for a time) a single medical professional makes Theranos very different, and investors understand that.

“I think they were an outlier, frankly and the outlier thing didn’t work out,” Unity Biotechnology CEO Keith Leonard told Business Insider. Unity’s a startup that wants to clear cells related to ageing from our bodies, and raised $116 million in October to pull that off.

And Theranos was mostly pointed to as the exception that proves the rule: when it comes to healthcare, only good science, led by medical professionals, backed by data and able to withstand review by outsiders, can succeed.

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of school to found the company when she was just 19 lacked healthcare experience or a medical background. The company kept its test results and the science behind them secret.

And the severity of its downfall, in part, came from how hyped-up it was thanks to its status as a “disrupter” promising to upend the blood-testing industry.

“I think it’s emblematic of a mentality of some investors to back what is perceived to be a big idea, [but] that’s more smoke than fire,” said David Lowe, CEO of Aeglea BioTherapeutics, a biotech developing enzyme-replacement therapies that went public in April 2016.

In search of the ‘next Theranos’

That doesn’t mean investors aren’t more watchful. One company drawing a lot of buzz, and comparisons to Theranos, is Samumed.

The private biotech fetches a $12 billion valuation, and is working on treatments with big consumer-focused promises. For example, Samumed’s lead product is a lotion to treat androgenetic alopecia, a common form of hair loss, and a cosmetic version of the drug could be used to get rid of wrinkles. The company has the uncommonly high valuation, even though the products are still in development. Samumed has seven drugs in human clinical trials (the farthest along are in phase 2), and plans to be in 10 different disease areas by the end of 2017.

And, Samumed has backers who aren’t traditional life sciences investors, like sovereign funds and high net-worth individuals.

But the key differentiator is that Samumed is being public about its data: presenting at medical conferences, where it gets peer reviewed as part of the vetting process, said CEO Osman Kibar, in an interview. And before it gets on the market, it will have to be approved by the FDA.

“Ultimately we will live or die with the strength of our data,” Kibar said. “Because we are in the business of therapeutics, we don’t have the luxury of not sharing data with the regulatory agencies.”

That same refrain rings true for Neon Therapeutics, a startup developing personalised cancer vaccines, raised a $70 million Series B in January in a round led by Partner Fund Management. (Partner Fund is currently suing Theranos, after the fund invested $96.1 million in 2014.)

Because therapies need to go through clinical trials, there’s not much room to be secretive or keep data from the public. At the end of the day, Neon CEO Hugh O’Dowd — an industry veteran, who spent 20 years at Novartis before joining Neon — said, that data’s what you have to keep in mind.

“You’re only as credible as your last piece of data,” he said.

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