The journey from start-up to scale-up is a tough row to hoe in any market, but when it comes to an area as complex and scrutinised as treating and diagnosing cancer, the uphill battle can be an even steeper incline – nevertheless, five notable start-ups reached the top.

Many companies out there are committed to deciphering the ins and outs of different cancers and finding treatment pathways that can extend the lives of sufferers.

But most of these don’t see the spotlight, and only a handful make it from start-up to scale-up and made headlines for various reasons along the way.

Here, we look at five such companies and take a glimpse at their progress and where they rank according to the amount of investment they’ve had.


Top five cancer start-ups ranked by investment:

1. Moderna Inc  – $2.7bn

A household name since it released one of the few Covid-19 vaccines out there, Moderna has grown dramatically since its start-up days, with the number of employees sitting at 1,300.

Despite the role it has played in the current pandemic, the firm’s purpose has always been to explore all of the medical applications of messenger RNA (mRNA) – a single-stranded RNA molecule designed to correspond with certain genes and synthesise into specific proteins.

For cancer, the approach involves creating an anti-cancer immune response tailored to individual tumours through a vaccination or immunotherapy approach.

So far only one vaccine candidate has passed phase one trials, and there are two immunotherapy options currently in phase two.

Nevertheless, many investors are still betting on Moderna to come through, with its total funding figure sitting at $2.7bn.


2.CureVac – $1.8bn

Moderna is one of many companies looking into mRNA as a prospective treatment for cancer.

CureVac could be its closest competitor with $1.8bn in investment supporting its journey to test and approve its immunomodulator-based treatments for cancer.

The 600-strong firm founded in 2000 currently has trials running for two mRNA therapeutics, one targeting cutaneous melanoma, adenoidcystic carcinoma, squamous cell cancer of skin, head and neck – the other targeting non-small cell lung cancer.


3. BioNTech – $1.5bn

BioNTech was Another company that became a household name seemingly over night because of its role in producing a Covid-19 vaccine in collaboration with manufacturing partner Pfizer.

But prior to this, the company’s 2008 founding goal was to develop the next generation of personalised immunotherapies for cancer and other diseases – a mission it’s still actively pursuing.

Similarly to CureVac, BioNTech took the immunotherapy route when looking for ways to create an immune response to cancer.

The company currently has a randomised Phase two trial running in collaboration with Genentech for first-line melanoma in combination with pembrolizumab – an FDA-approved breakthrough therapy for the treatment of metastatic melanoma.

A close competitor to the two companies above, BioNTech has accrued $1.5bn in total investment to fuel its ambitions.


4.  Nanthealth – $650m

Moving away from treatment to diagnostics, Nanthealth has garnered $650m in investment for its suite of products designed to assist doctors in selecting evidence-based treatments on a per patient basis.

But the company, which was founded in 2010 by South African-American transplant surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, also collaborated with has other firm NantOmics to bring the GPS Cancer Platform to market in February 2020.

When new drugs have variable results in patient trials, it can be because of certain tumour mutations that prevent the creation of proteins or partial proteins that trigger an immune response to fight the cancer.

The GPS Cancer Platform creates a profile a patient’s tumour by analysing it for DNA and RNA sequencing data and comparing findings with their normal genome data to reveal mutations.

The platform then takes the molecular insights and matches them to studies to output treatments that may benefit patients, as well as those to which the cancer may be resistant.


5. Guardant Health – $550m

The current standard of care for non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) involves a tissue biopsy to analyse whether cancer cells are present, as well as the severity of the condition and what stage it’s reached.

For many years now, liquid biopsies, which seek to do the same thing but through a less invasive procedure, have been considered an up-and-coming alternative.

One company that has done much to push the alternative for NSCLC is Guardant Health – a California-based medtech started in 2013.

The company now boasts a 90% concordance rate with tissue biopsies for finding targetable alterations – genetic changes in the tumour that could make them more or less susceptible to different treatments.

In one study of 323 NSCLC patients, the company’s technology Guardant360 even improved alteration detection, with analysis on tissue alone detecting targetable mutations for 47 patients (20.5%), whereas plasma sequencing using the firm’s platform increased targetable mutation detection to 82 patients (35.8%).

Guardant Health’s total investment figure currently stands at $550m.