Exclusive: Avenda gets $10M to advance prostate cancer care

Disclaimer: Unfold AI previously known as iQuest

Avenda Health, an AI startup bringing personalization to prostate cancer care, raised $10 million in Series B funding led by VCapital, the parties tell Axios exclusively.

Why it matters: Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men, but scientific advancements to treat the disease have dramatically lagged other areas of oncology. With technology, Culver City’s Avenda hopes to preserve diagnosed patients’ quality of life.

  • An estimated 1 in 8 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer, with an even higher prevalence in Hispanic and African American men.

What they’re saying: “It’s been over 40 years since the FDA has passed a new therapy for localized prostate cancer,” CEO Shyam Natarajan tells Sarah. “Our goal is to transform prostate cancer care from one-size-fits-all to personalized care.”

  • Prostate cancer is often caught too late, and for those who do catch it early enough, the side-effects are devastating, VCapital partner Ryan Kole adds. “It’s not getting the attention it deserves,” Kole says.

How it works: Avenda uses AI deep learning (via its iQuest software) to help surgeons identify precisely where the tumor lies within the gland and the extent of the disease to target the cancerous tissue only — leaving everything else untouched.

  • While this idea of focal therapy is not new, in prostate cancer, “that is something nobody else does,” COO Brittany Berry-Pusey says.

What’s next: Fresh funds will enable Avenda to run additional pilots and accelerate the use of iQuest — with commercialization anticipated in early 2023.

  • While its focal laser ablation system is already cleared by the FDA for soft tissue ablation, Avenda anticipates FDA approval for its iQuest software component this fall.
  • It has already received an investigational device exemption allowing its products to be used to treat prostate cancer patients in a randomly controlled trial against standard of care.

Zoom in: The status quo involves either active monitoring of the cancer or removal of the whole prostate, which is far from ideal.

  • Besides a lengthy recovery, the traditional MRI mapping method that informs treatment is associated with side-effects including incontinence and erectile dysfunction — with either or both impacting 1 in 2 men.
  • Using a fiber-optic laser device, Avenda’s minimally invasive solution aims to enable urologists to treat patients quickly without compromising sexual or urinary functions.

State of play: Prostate cancer has many similarities to the breast cancer space, yet the latter has witnessed much more scientific advancement.

  • The stigma around the side-effects of prostate cancer combined with the fact that it is a slow-growing cancer — and therefore takes more time to prove out innovations — has contributed to the slow pace of innovation, Berry-Pusey says.
  • More recently, she adds, regulators have recognized the large unmet need and begun pushing for clinical trials to drive innovation. “We are very eagerly putting our hands up.”

Between the lines: Natarajan says Avenda is essentially building an operating system for urologists that will help to democratize the market.

  • “We want to empower your community urologist,” Berry-Pusey adds.

Details: The investment brings Avenda’s total funding to date to $16 million.

  • Joining VCapital in the round are Plug & Play Ventures, Wealthing VC Club, and other undisclosed investors.
  • When Wealthing led a $6.4m financing in Avenda in February 2022, it valued the business at over $50 million. The company declined to provide an updated valuation.
  • Avenda employs 17 people, having grown 3x over the last 12 months.

Catch up fast: Avenda, a UCLA spinout, was founded more a decade ago with support from a National Cancer Institute Grant.

  • Natarajan and Berry-Pusey founded the company alongside Leonard S. Marks, a UCLA professor and pioneer in targeted prostate biopsy, active surveillance and focal therapy.

Bottom line: Avenda, if successful, has a tremendous upside opportunity: “This will change the standard of care for prostate cancer,” Kole says.