Cancer diagnostics firm, Helio Health Inc., one of Orange County’s better-funded medical startups, plans to ramp up its Irvine operations following the recent launch of its inaugural product.
Founded in 2014 under the Laboratory for Advanced Medicine Inc. name, Helio Health is developing AI-enabled blood tests to identify early stages of blood, breast and liver cancers from a blood draw.
Its first product, HelioLiver, is a laboratory developed test that detects early-stage liver cancers at a higher rate than traditional detection methods.
The product launched in December, via a commercial partnership with Fulgent Genetics Inc. (Nasdaq: FLGT), a nearly $2 billion-valued genetics firm in Los Angeles County’s Temple City.
“We’re on the precipice of something great—we can really revolutionize liver cancer, a problem around the globe,” Helio Health Chief Executive Justin Chen Li told the Business Journal.
“Now, we must scale and build a large research team in Orange County.”
The company currently reports 150 total employees between its U.S. and China operations, including 35 in the U.S.
Property records indicate its U.S headquarters, located in Irvine’s Research Park, is roughly 10,000 square feet.
Li says he’d like to see the company grow its OC base to around 100 people; it’s currently looking to hire about a dozen or so employees, primarily researchers and lab workers, he says.
“We will need a lot more laboratory space and office space as we scale,” Li said.
“There are a number of areas in Orange County that are of interest, although we have not decided on a location yet.”
Startup, VC Background
Prior to joining Helio Health five years ago as a VP of finance and business development, Li co-founded Irvine medtech startup Sprightly Health Inc., held various consulting roles at FactSet Research Systems (Nasdaq: FDS) and worked as a market analyst for Phillips 66’s (NYSE: PSX) trade floor.
He currently advises seed and Series A-stage healthcare and life sciences startups as a member of the CEO Leadership Alliance of Orange County. In addition, he’s a current partner at J&J; Investments and a venture adviser for the SC Master Fund.
“Making investment decisions, I’ve gotten a good perspective of venture capital from the other side of the table,” he said. “I believe seeing both sides of the equation helps me run the company.”
Li took Helio Health’s helm last July, replacing Kenneth Chahine, who previously launched the AncestryDNA division of Ancestry.com and also served as CEO of Avigen, a biopharmaceutical company. Chahine, who took on the CEO role at Helio Health in 2019, remains as an adviser, according to the company.
$148M in Funds
Helio Health has raised over $148 million, including $118 million last July in an oversubscribed Series B round co-led by Samsung Securities Co.
Fulgent Genetics was part of that funding round; regulatory filings indicate it bought $20 million of redeemable preferred stock as part of the deal.
Helio Health is gearing up to launch a new funding round soon, according to Li. “We are looking to expand our senior leadership team as we continue our fundraising and get closer to an IPO,” he said.
“We’re in a good capital position, however we are looking for a bigger investment to accelerate the company,” he said, adding Helio plans to “formally open up a large round” and set its valuation later this year.
Last May, Helio partnered with Fujifilm Medical Systems USA Inc. to develop its inaugural product, the HelioLiver. Detecting liver cancer in early stages reportedly increases a patient’s five-year survival rate by 13 times.
Its commercial partner is Fulgent Genetics.
Since the December launch of the test, Helio has “seen hundreds of HelioLiver kits get sent to top hospitals in the nation, which will help us achieve [its] goal of gaining broader adoption,” Li said.
While HelioLiver is currently CLIA-certified and CAP-accredited, the company awaits FDA approval for the product.
Fulgent officials expect big things from the partnership, which marks its first product in the “early detection liquid biopsy space.”
HelioLiver is “only a beginning,” Fulgent CEO Ming Hsieh told analysts late last month following the company’s latest earnings report. “We have additional development and the commercialization opportunities for the other diseases with Helio in the future.”
Fulgent expects the liver test to make inroads in both the U.S. and China, and officials say Helio Health should benefit from the Temple City’s operational capabilities.
Helio Health officials believe it is currently the only company of its type in the liver space, saying its only competitor is the typical standard of care.
Ultrasound is typically the first step in detecting early-stage liver cancer.
The only problem is that ultrasound is roughly 45% sensitive. Helio’s test is 76% sensitive, according to Li.
“Many clinics seeing these high-risk patients are overscheduled or do not have their own ultrasound capabilities, so the patient must schedule a second visit. Oftentimes those second visits are never scheduled,” he said.
“Any physician’s office should have the capability to draw blood with our test. Any patient should have a more convenient way to get a cancer screening.”