The Fund Founder Spotlight Interview: Niamh O'Hara of Biotia
Niamh O’Hara is co-founder and CEO of Biotia, a health tech leveraging next-generation sequencing and artificial intelligence for rapid precision infectious disease discovery.
Welcome to The Founder Spotlight where we highlight the incredible people behind the companies we’ve backed at The Fund. The Fund is a founder collective and early stage firm, by founders for founders.
There’s no denying that COVID has brought infectious diseases to the forefront, but they’ve always existed and continue to be a global threat. Diagnosing and researching infectious diseases is challenging to say the least, but there are also high rates of diagnostic failure that lead to mortality and drug resistance. Since 2016, Biotia has been leveraging genomics and artificial intelligence for precision infectious disease insights to guide patient treatment and improve health outcomes.
Biotia was launched out of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech in association with Weill Cornell Medicine. Co-founder and CEO Dr. Niamh O’Hara met her co-founder Dr. Christopher Mason at the New York Genome Center and they wanted to use technology to impact patient care and health. Niamh has PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with a focus in Genomics, while Christopher has a PhD in Genetics and is a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine. They are dedicated to Biotia’s mission of fighting infectious disease with AI and genomics while developing the world’s leading microbial sequence database. Niamh provided some insight into Biotia and how their technology is changing the way infectious diseases are diagnosed and treated, as well how the data is shared and analyzed.
What inspired the creation of Biotia?
While getting my PhD, I was using DNA sequencing in my research. As I started working with hospitals, I saw this incredible gap in the way they do diagnostics. The current gold standard is to take a sample, like urine, they grow it on a petri dish, and look through a microscope to identify microbial species. This is technology from the 1800s and it's pretty wild that it’s still the gold standard. It's also really limited because less than 5% or so of species can actually be cultured, and slow because you're waiting for these microorganisms to grow. So we basically have this technology that I'd been using as a grad student, and it's very standard in the academic/research front, that you use DNA and RNA sequencing to identify microbial species and drug resistance markers. We just identified this giant gap between standard practice and research and built Biotia to bridge that gap.
What is Biotia’s Northstar?
Science. We're mostly a bunch of scientists, the majority coming out of Cornell, Cornell Tech, Weill Cornell, and Columbia University. We use a very rigorous scientific approach with a focus on publications, sharing data, and collaboration.
Tell us about a recent milestone Biotia crushed.
We closed an oversubscribed, $8 million Series A round last summer, which has allowed us to grow the company, including hiring 14 people last year.
What is Biotia working on?
-The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the SARS-CoV-2 Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) Assay: This is the product we have for COVID. We were working on this before the pandemic and have also shifted back to focus on other application areas.
-Urology: We have a genomics assay for testing urine, which allows us to diagnose urinary tract infections and pathogens that cause sexually transmitted infections.
-Challenge infections: These are generally infections that you find in sterile sites like in the central nervous system. We can test cerebral spinal fluid and joint fluid, so a product we've been developing is an assay that can diagnose prosthetic joint infections for post-joint replacement surgery. There are a number of people who get infections at those sites and they're very hard to diagnose and treat. Our product tests for synovial fluid, which can actually guide the selection of antimicrobials, or which drugs to choose to treat those infections.
What differentiates Biotia from competitors?
There are other companies out there working on similar technology, but nobody is doing the combination of different assays that we've been developing. In addition, we have a clinical lab in New York, so that opens a lot of doors. New York is the largest market and it’s very hard to get accreditations in the state. You can’t sell into New York without a clinical lab or Laboratory Developed Test (LDT) approval, but you can sell into any other state because New York has the highest bar.
Another differentiator for us is we have taken the platform we've built, and we've extended it to launch GeoSeeq. It’s a genomics biosurveillance hub that allows researchers globally to upload their genomic data. We created this with the Rockefeller Foundation, Weill Cornell Medicine, MetaSUB, Biomedical Informatics, Fiocruz, and City University of New York and we built a number of analytical tools on top of it to make sense of all the data. What we’re doing is moving towards predicting emerging pathogens and outbreaks before they occur, and then coordinating with public health folks on guidance and responding.
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