Oncology: The 900 Pound Gorilla of Startup Funding

In 2018, startups in the United States raised over $13 billion in capital. Of that, nearly 15 percent (or $1.7 billion) went to oncology-focused companies. On the surface, it’s easy to see why so many investors would want to put their funds toward cancer. Most would consider curing the elusive family of diseases as a moonshot, especially as cases continue to grow at an alarming rate.
But digging deeper, there’s more to the story of why oncology raises so much money, and a host of new technologies have come into play. Let’s dive in and see the details.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

When thinking about the biggest ideas in medicine, it’s become almost commonplace to say “a cure for cancer.” From students to scientists, pageant contestants to investors. Even former Vice President Joe Biden feels the pull:

“I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America, we’re gonna cure cancer.”

It’s not a surprising goal. Almost every person can name at least one person close to them affected by the disease. That prevalence means that cancer gets a lot of attention. That attention means that, for better or for worse, oncology is a major talking point.

Talk is Cheap, Cures are Expensive

If you’re a startup that sees your potential funding go toward oncology instead, that talking point is part of the problem. Between individuals, organizations, and the government, cancer gets a huge amount of attention. Some investors, swayed by the noise, choose to pass on other areas and put their money into oncology instead. That bias extends into government funding as well. The National Institute of Health, for example, spends nearly double on the National Cancer Institute as it does its next closest center.

That said, cancer is an epidemic and worthy of the money requied to study, treat, and prevent — if not cure — the diseases. But it’s worth considering whether investors are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

On the Horizon

It’s impossible to talk about cancer in 2019 without also talking about CRISPR. The genetic engineering field is relatively young. CRISPR as a term and dedicated field of study within genetics has only been around since 2002. But the gene editing idea may indeed hold our best chance at curing cancer at its source.

For those not in the know, the Cliff’s Notes version of CRISPR goes something like this: It is a gene editing technology that identifies and “cuts” certain strands of DNA, and then “pastes” replacement DNA in its place. As it relates to cancers, CRISPR should be able to target and remove germline mutations (inherited gene faults) that are tied to cancer growth.

Skirting the Edges

The up side of oncology getting so much attention is that there are many other fields that can work with the cancer while having other areas of cocus as well. Immunotherapy, pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, and epigenetics are all specialties that see continued attention from oncology. But these fields all have larger umbrellas over them, covering many other areas of treatment as well.

For those who may think that the oncology gorilla is eating too much from the startup funding buffet, there are other fields that can benefit from the attention that cancer commands.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Are investors ignoring other areas, opting for moonshot oncology treatments? Or does the field deserve even more attention than it gets today? Sound off via your AngelMD profile, and use the #AMDoncology hashtag. Let’s start a discussion.

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