Sujal Patel has seen a world-changing trend coming before.
In 2001, in his mid-20s, he founded data storage technology company Isilon Systems in Seattle, correctly anticipating a massive increase in unstructured data in the world. He led the company as CEO, took it public as a billion-dollar business, and sold it to enterprise technology giant EMC in 2010 for $2.5 billion.
Now he sees another secular shift on the horizon — and he has identified a new opportunity along with it.
What’s the potential of this new idea? “Big,” he said. “Bigger than Isilon. … Much bigger than Isilon.”
But many of the details are a mystery for now. Patel wasn’t ready to talk in detail this week when GeekWire surprised him with a phone call out of the blue, asking about records that we recently unearthed, which list him as the CEO of a company called Ignite Biosciences.
According to the previously unreported SEC filing, Ignite raised $27 million from Silicon Valley venture capital powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz and other investors last year, yet somehow the company has been able to operate under the radar for three years without anyone noticing. Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group, where Patel is a strategic director, is also an investor.
When we asked what Ignite Biosciences does, Patel described it as a stealth mode biotech company. In other words, this had the potential to be a very short call. But he seemed amused by our sleuthing and played along with our efforts to get him to tell us as much as possible.
Here’s what we learned from our phone call, public records, patent and trademark filings, and a little shoe leather.
Patel’s co-founder is Parag Mallick, a Stanford associate professor with loads of experience working with biological data. His research focuses on the early detection of cancer. His lab is pursuing research in areas including how and why cells malfunction, the underlying biology of biomarkers that target cancer, and creating technology to study proteins.
Mallick runs ProteoWizard, an open source platform for studying proteomics data, and his lab created ImmunoGlobe, an online map that shows how immune cells interact. For his post-doctorate work at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, he studied how proteins could be used to diagnose cancer. He was director of clinical proteomics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center from 2006 to 2009.
He is also a magician and performer who juggles giant knives and does card tricks.
Ignite has filed three patent applications with the World Intellectual Property Organization. On an application that lists Patel as an inventor, the company describes a data-driven method of identifying proteins based on their binding properties. The other two applications describe ways of analyzing proteins selecting substances that bind to peptides, small chains of amino acids. Both peptides and proteins are frequently employed as drugs.
Two of the applications also list Jarrett Egertson as an inventor. Egertson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Washington who previously studied under Mallick at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. His research has revolved around using data-driven methods to study proteins, peptides and other molecules.
The patent applications focus largely on blood tests, with one noting for example, that the system could analyze blood samples “with the goal of monitoring individual health and early detection of health issues.”
Ignite has also applied for trademarks in which it lists dozens of “goods and services” related to its business. Those are broadly defined, but there are a few specifics, including: “a device for molecular analysis of proteins”; “cloud hosting provider services for storing, analyzing and sharing biological information”; and “computer software for data collection, management, and analysis of genetic information.”
While it’s far from definitive, these clues — combined with the backgrounds of Patel and Mallick — suggest a system that uses advanced computational techniques and blood tests to detect cancer at an early stage.
Known as liquid biopsies, these tests are a red-hot area for the biotech industry. Last month, Thrive Early Detection, based in Cambridge, Mass., raised $110 million for a system that uses blood tests to find cancer based on DNA and protein measurements, based on a test licensed from Johns Hopkins University. Rival biotech startup Grail, based in San Francisco, has raised $1.5 billion to fund a similar effort, with investors including Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. Grail’s new CEO is Hans Bishop, former CEO of Seattle-based biotech standout Juno Therapeutics.
The company splits its operations between the Bay Area and Seattle and has been operating in stealth mode since 2016. Its Seattle address is listed in state corporations records, and on a recent fact-finding mission to the address, near the Amazon headquarters, we found a mostly empty office and a simple plaque bearing the company’s name.
Vijay S. Pande, a general partner at Ignite investor Andreessen Horowitz, is on the Ignite board. Pande is also an adjunct professor of bioengineering at Stanford and started a healthcare fund for Andreessen Horowitz in 2015. He is the founder of Folding@home, a computing project for protein folding that uses computing resources from volunteers around the world.
Pande has also written publicly about why people shouldn’t be afraid of artificial intelligence and how humans can engineer biology.
Former Yahoo CTO Farzad Nazem is listed as a board director at Ignite in public documents. Since leaving Yahoo in 2007, Nazem has been active as an angel investor. He lists more than 30 health tech startup investments on his LinkedIn profile, including a number of biotechnology and precision medicine companies such as Adaptive Biotechnologies, Ginkgo Bioworks and uBiome. Nazem has also served as an advisor to several health technology startups.
Noosheen Hashemi, the founder and CEO of January, a personalized health startup, describes herself on LinkedIn as an Ignite Biosciences investor and advisor. Nazem and Hashemi are husband and wife.
How did Patel get into this in the first place? We told Patel that we were surprised to learn his next big venture was in life sciences. His degree from the University of Maryland is in computer science, and he worked at Seattle-based digital media company RealNetworks before founding Isilon.
Patel explained, “After Isilon, I spent a lot of time to think about what do I want to do that’s big and impactful. Isilon was all about capitalizing on a major trend, a secular trend that was going on in the world, which is that there was this massive transition from text-based data to unstructured data and digital content, and that would have huge implications on storage architectures.”
“The intersection of computer science and the life sciences creates an enormous opportunity that lots of people are talking about and recognizing,” he said. “That’s an important intersection that I think is going to pay really good dividends in the next 10 years.”
In the years since EMC acquired Isilon, Patel has been an active investor and board member, backing Seattle startups like Amperity and Igneous, as well as a new company called Maka Autonomous Robotics Systems, which is led by Patel’s Isilon co-founder Paul Mikesell.
Earlier this year, Patel joined Bay Area venture capital firm Defy Partners as part of its “sage” program. He’s also a strategic director at Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group and sits on the board of Madrona-backed cloud startup Qumulo.
Matt McIlwain, Madrona managing director, said the firm invested in Ignite with the goal of “bringing our deep expertise in cloud and applied machine learning as well as company building to help Sujal, Parag and their team change the world through breakthroughs in proteomics.”
McIlwain is also board chair of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and he said the firm has been making investments the “intersections of innovation,” including investments in companies working biological and computer sciences. Other Madrona investments in health tech include clinical software startup Ovation.io, which makes cloud-based software for medical testing labs; SayKara, which makes AI assistant for physicians; Accolade, a personalized population health company led by Concur co-founder Rajeev Singh; and Envisagenics, a startup that’s developing RNA therapeutics.
“Matt and Madrona were wonderful partners at Isilon and I am super excited to be working with them at Ignite,” Patel said.
Ignite Biosciences appears to be shaping up as Patel’s next big thing. But to a long list of questions — How many employees? How did he meet his co-founder? Are any former Isilon colleagues joining him? — Patel gave a laugh and the same answer: “I’ll tell you when we come out of stealth mode.”
And when will that happen?
Next year, he said. “Stay tuned.”
Updated at 10:30 a.m. Thursday with details from Madrona Venture Group.