Newman Award Q&A: The Founders of Indicator

September 28, 2018
Bennett McIntosh
Livermore, Calif

One way the Hertz Foundation helps its fellows apply their scientific and technical expertise to real-world problems is through the Newman Entrepreneurial Fund. Established by Hertz Director Harold Newman, the Fund annually awards investments of up to $25,000 to entrepreneurial efforts by Hertz Fellows. In 2018, one of the four ventures awarded funding by the prize was Indicator, led by Hertz Fellows Megan Blewett, Ashvin Bashyam, and Aman Sinha, and their teammates Justin Norden and John Cannon.

Indicator seeks to provide a platform for researchers and investors to match new scientific advances to diseases and other conditions (“indications”) that the advances might treat. We sat down with the Indicator team to discuss their vision for the future of therapeutic research, and how the Newman funds have helped Indicator move rapidly from idea towards prototype.

Hertz Foundation: What is Indicator? Who do you envision using the platform?

Megan Blewett: When you’re developing new therapeutics, the first step is often fundamentally a matching problem: You start with new science, and then figure out which indications to apply it to. (We’re using the term indication to mean any medical condition, whether a rare or common disease or any other condition worth targeting with a new therapy. It would include everything from acne to cancer to multiple sclerosis.)

It’s a highly multifactorial process. For example, a new company focused on gene editing might search PubMed, talk to doctors, and hire consultants, and end up with some list of maybe 100 genetic diseases that they could target. Then they might use a tool—there are several of these out there—to figure out who else is building drugs for that indication, and then look at factors like the prevalence of the disease, what the existing therapies are, and how much you could charge.

We essentially want to collect all of this information in one place.

Justin Norden: Building up a new drug is a $1 billion, ten-plus-year process, from the very basic science through the Phase III clinical trial. Choosing which science to develop towards which indications determines where years of people’s work and billions of dollars go. So we think it’s an unmet need to quickly search the entire space, thousands and thousands of diseases, and focus directly on the right thing to pursue.

HF: How does Indicator address problems in the current matching process?

Ashvin Bashyam: We see ourselves as the first filter that a company or an investor would use in the indication selection process, as a tool to comprehensively search the roughly 10,000 different indications out there.

We hope to provide a less biased way of looking at the scientific data, to better match the right science to the patients who can benefit from it.

Blewett: We think this unbiased search will help address what we call “indication dark matter”: indications that might actually be addressed by existing science, but that biotech communities aren’t currently focused on. Not having the right diseases on your radar is bad for biotech companies, but it’s even worse for people living with these diseases.

HF: How did you assemble a team to address this problem?

Aman Sinha: The first inklings started at the Hertz West Coast fall retreat last year, in 2017. Megan and I were just eating breakfast and she said, “There’s this idea I’ve been thinking about for a while, a problem I’ve noticed as a venture capitalist.”

Blewett: This project was born out of a need, or an annoyance, both for me as an investor [at Venrock] and for the biotech companies I meet with. All of us struggle to some degree with this problem. So partially for selfish reasons I wanted a better solution for this, and I felt like if there were a solution I would use it.

Sinha: I told Justin about it when I came home that weekend, and said “hey, would you be interested in doing a couple weekends on this, and seeing if it turns into something cool.” And I met with Ashvin later that December when I was in Boston. Ashvin and Megan had already been talking for a while about similar problems, and Justin talked with John, who he knew in undergrad, about it in January. So the project basically started in January, around the time we turned in the Newman application.

Blewett: This is a very hard problem to solve, but this combination of people brought some unique skillsets to the problem. We have some MD students, [Justin and John], and the great thing about John is that even though he’s an MD student, he writes an insane amount of code. His hobby has been writing code to analyze data. Aman is top-notch CS, and Ashvin is very much engaged with the biotech community. So we thought it would be fun to work together and bring a new lens to the problem.

HF: How did the Newman Prize enable Indicator to develop towards a viable product?

Blewett: This money really was a godsend. It helped us develop from a bare-bones model to a prototype we were proud to share with others in the biotech community who also think about indication selection. It’s helped us get more feedback on what would be useful to the broader biotech community.

Bashyam: It’s enabled conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.We’ve spoken to nearly 50 people in the biotech community, and most of those conversations have been had after we received this funding.

Blewett: It’s more than just the money. Since winning the prize, we’ve had several meetings with Derek Lidow [1973 Hertz Fellow and member of the Fellowship and Programs Council ]. Being able to seek his input has been very helpful to us.

Sinha: Initially, we were mostly focused on building a tool for VCs, but Derek encouraged us to look at other types of investors such as hedge funds. So all of this feedback is, to some extent, because of the Newman prize.

HF: What have you learned from that feedback?

Blewett: It’s helpful to see the different data that is needed by different members of the biotech community. We hear from consultants that they need more epidemiological data than a typical VC would be looking for.

Bashyam: Our conversations have also encouraged us to add more analytics on top of the data, to build something more defensible that nobody can just look at our product and copy. And one small, but fundamental thing: our market research helped us decide that we wanted to change the spelling, from indicatr to Indicator—as fun as misspelling things is in Silicon Valley, we found this worked better for our customers in the biotech community.

HF: What’s next for Indicator?

Bashyam: We spent the summer building a prototype that we can use to conduct market research, and from that we’ve learned what features we intend to build. Our next move is building a first-generation product over the next few months, and then putting it in the hands of beta testers at the beginning of next year. We want it to span all the indications, all the clinical trials, all the drugs, and all the companies that are relevant to the industry. Once we have all of the data under the hood, we can leverage this powerful platform to layer on more advanced analytics to help answer higher value questions.

HF: What inspired you to apply for the Newman?

Bashyam: I’ve been really inspired by Agile and Diffeo, other teams who have won the Newman prize in the past. Just seeing their stories, from winning the prize to becoming commercially viable, I’d always thought it would be fun to do something like that. So when this group got started and the opportunity came along, the timing was just perfect. Right when we thought we’d be interested in raising a bit of money, the Newman deadline was approaching.

Sinha: And the funding is almost uniquely generous in the terms that it comes with. Living in Silicon Valley you’re used to seeing every investment coming with strings attached, even if just equity. A project this early on in the process, we’re not ready for those kinds of things yet. So, it was really nice to have this sort of opportunity.

Blewett: The prize fills something of a hole in the funding climate today for really early ideas like this. We wanted to do some critical de-risking, to figure out if anybody other than me had this problem. You need some amount of money to do that, but it’s hard to come by elsewhere.

HF: What advice would you give to Hertz Fellows or other students looking to turn their own ideas into ventures?

Sinha: One of the best places to flesh out these ideas is at the fall retreats or at the summer workshops. When people are just shooting the breeze on the beach or over lunch is when these kinds of conversations tend to happen. So I’d encourage other fellows to talk to each other about the problems they’re facing, to reach out to other people in the community

Newman Entrepreneurial Initiative applications are now being accepted on a rolling basis. The Newman Entrepreneurial Initiative was established by Harold Newman to support entrepreneurial efforts by Hertz Fellows and will provide individual investments of up to $25,000 with a particular emphasis on collaborative activities amongst Fellows.These investments are expected to fund work for 6-12 months and are meant to catalyze the creative and commercial process that leads to outside fundraising where appropriate.

Any Hertz Fellow in good standing with the Foundation may propose a project for funding.Preference will be given to Fellows in school or in the early years of their careers. Funds are granted with no strings attached, but in the expectation that successful developers will be motivated to share their success with the Foundation. Additional information is available on our website.