Archive: 2019

Focusing on the Core

Announcing Spero Ventures’ latest investment in health & well-being: Core, which promises to make meditation easy and accessible for everyone.

After my fourth cycle of chemo, my anxiety was at an all-time high. Little things I had never noticed before, like the light that beamed out of the top of my television and onto the ceiling, kept me awake for hours. My anxiety got so bad that I started to see a therapist. In one of our first meetings she asked me if I was open to meditation.

Our bodies are complex and interconnected systems. Physical and mental well-being are intrinsically connected. At Spero Ventures, we invest in technology that makes life worth living. Mental well-being is an area we believe is foundational to the health of our communities. And so we are happy to announce our investment in Core.

For decades our society has focused on improving our physical well-being, but until recently, we have largely ignored our mental well-being. Just like we can train our bodies, we can train our minds. And it is important we do so because the state of our mind has a pervasive effect on all parts of our lives.

Meditation is one of the most effective ways to train the mind. The positive side effects of meditation are numerous: It helps reduce stress and anxiety; it increases our attention-spans and enhances our self-awareness; it may reduce age-related memory loss; it can help fight addiction; it can decrease our blood pressure and help reduce pain; and it can even help us sleep better.

More people are beginning to realize the positive effects of meditation. Some 14% of American adults meditated within the past year?—?a threefold increase from 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

So why aren’t all of us meditating? Because it takes real effort. When we want to change the shape of our bodies, it can take months of concerted effort working out, eating better and sleeping well. While we understand those requirements on the physical side, the same effort and focus is required for meditation. But even if people manage to find the time to meditate, focusing on something as ephemeral as the breath is hard for most people.

Core, founded by Sarah McDevitt and Brian Bolze, has developed a unique and immersive meditation experience to make it easier for everyone to meditate. At the center is the Core Meditation Trainer, a beautiful device that gently pulses as you meditate. The tactile signal allows meditators to focus on something tangible and ever-present.

The device is supplemented by a rich app experience that fades into the background as you start meditating. The device tracks your stress levels through heart rate and HRV, and the app shows you the moments when you were thinking about something else, and helps you understand your stress during a meditation session. It can also help you understand how your practice is improving your health over time.

We believe that technology can help address some of the most important problems that we face today. Core exemplifies this. We are excited to work with the expanding team at Core as they bring their vision to life.

Non-obvious choices

My film school classmate Heather shared this video of Henry Thomas’ audition for E.T. Take a look.

What stands out are the choices he made. Before becoming an investor, I spent some years in film. I’ve auditioned children for roles and most of them make the obvious choice – screaming, shouting, being loud. That is likely what most of the kids who auditioned for this role did, too. “NOOOO!!! You can’t take him!!” etc.

But what Henry Thomas did was so unexpected. With such little information, he decided to very quietly cry. He made the creature his friend, he asked how the agent even knows all this. He decided to be extremely vulnerable. These are the choices that got him hired.

I’ve often said that there are a ton of similarities between tech and film1. This is one small example – when you are interviewing candidates, a majority will pick the obvious answers. That’s fine. They could be journeymen in the company. But when there is a candidate who makes an entirely non-obvious choice, something that makes you sit back and think in a new and different way, those are the candidates who can change the trajectory of the company. Hire them.

  1. That’s for another post 

Scaling Genomics

Joseph Pickrell and Tomaz Berisa, Gencove

Joseph Pickrell and Tomaz Berisa

Genomics is on the verge of enabling a torrent of data-driven invention, personalization and decision-making. 
Applications will extend across all forms of life?—?from humans to animals to plants to microbes.

In healthcare, genomics could pervade nearly every aspect of patient care, from prevention strategies to decisions about treatments. It also will provide the basis for a new generation of targeted drugs and therapies that can extend and improve the quality of life for billions of people. In agriculture, genomics will optimize plant and animal productivity while aiding in disease resistance and food safety/traceability. Genomics will also play a role in animal conservation, environmental monitoring, and public health and safety.

All these new opportunities will lead to the creation of new markets, products and services, requiring new tools and platforms.

At Spero Ventures, we invest in technologies that make life worth living. We believe genomics will be foundational to advancing the health and well-being of humanity and the planet. It will inform decision-making and touch lives in ways we cannot yet imagine and may not even see. And so it gives us great pleasure to announce our investment in Gencove.

Gencove, led by co-founders Joe Pickrell and Tomaz Berisa, is developing and commercializing a software platform to support low-pass whole genome sequencing. Low-pass sequencing sequences the whole genome at low depth (0.4–4x) and uses imputation algorithms to fill in missing data. The platform empowers decision-makers across consumer, clinical, research, and agricultural fields with easy and affordable access to rich genomic data and insights.

Whole genome sequencing is the most expensive form of sequencing and the most exhaustive. It maps all three billion base pairs within a (human) genome, providing a massive volume of data for analysis. It serves as the foundation for generating new knowledge of how and why living beings develop. And it is becoming the gold standard for discovering new genetic variants and new relationships between genotypes and phenotypes.

The cost of whole genome sequencing has declined dramatically since the early days of the Human Genome Project, famously outpacing Moore’s law. Reductions originally owed to the introduction of Next Generation Sequencing1, followed by hardware improvements, and more recently software that shifts cost and computational burden to later stage analysis2. Despite these reductions, the $500–1000 price point (and even the widely-touted yet still aspirational $100 price point) for whole genome sequencing remains out of reach for a wide range of applications. Without an affordable alternative, these applications will either fail to be commercialized, remain niche and unaffordable for most, or rely on the limited subset of data offered by less expensive DNA microarrays3 (which typically cover 0.03% of the genome).

Low-pass sequencing (LPS) is this affordable, data rich alternative. And Gencove is making LPS available to customers at price points beginning at $50 per sequence?—?on par with microarrays. In addition to offering comprehensive coverage, LPS outperforms microarrays in detecting both common and rare genetic variation. LPS does not require a priori knowledge of the genome making it suitable for new variant discovery and free from the bias inherent in microarrays (which are widely seen as unsuitable for non-Caucasian/European populations not well covered by reference databases).

Gencove’s customers are integrating low-pass sequence data into personalized consumer product offerings, new research modalities, novel diagnostics, plant/animal breeding programs, and more.

We are excited partner with Gencove in its mission to bring affordable genomic insights to customers and industries that have never before been able to affordably integrate them at scale?—?potentially unlocking discoveries and innovations we have yet to imagine.

  1. Next Generation (or High-Throughput) Sequencing became the most widely used technique in the early-2000s due to its ability to handle large-scale, automated genome analysis. 

  2. Including genome assembly, variant calling, quality control, etc. 

  3. Microarrays examine a predetermined set of sites on the genome from which one can infer ancestry, genetic relationships, and some disease risks. 

We + me

David Brooks wrote about his efforts to improve social isolation with his project, Weave:

The first core idea was that social isolation is the problem underlying a lot of our other problems. The second idea was that this problem is being solved by people around the country, at the local level, who are building community and weaving the social fabric. How can we learn from their example and nationalize their effect?

Brooks found these “weavers” all across the nation. When you can connect people around shared interests, common goals and mutually-experienced problems rather than the things that separate and divide them, you build communities.

This is something we think about since one of our key investment areas is human connection. So how can we use tech to do this better? Technology scales and can cross local/geographic boundaries. And it can be used to form deep relationships (remember Twitter in the early days when you formed friendships?). How can tech recreate the feeling of presence and attention? The feeling of a small group intimacy? If we can do this, we open up such interesting ways to make people feel less alone.

The only tweak I’d make to Brooks’ article is his statement that “We precedes me.” Relationships and compassion can live side by side with the idea of self-interest and self-expression. It’s should be in my own self-interest to want my community to thrive and be healthy because I live here. One does not have to precede the other and when we realize that we are all inter-connected and have to coexist is when there will be balance.