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Spiraling into control: Young CEO gets $3 mil for DNA startup

Spiral Genetics founder Adina Mangubat Credit: Tom Travin

When she needs a break from striving for the betterment of mankind, Adina Mangubat likes to escape to a café in a local art gallery for a few moments of quiet time.

Lately she hasn’t had many opportunities for that. The co-founder and CEO of Spiral Genetics has spent many long days preparing for Tuesday’s announcement that her Seattle-based bioinformatics company has raised $3 million in its first institutional round of funding.

The Series A round was led by the California-based venture capital firm DFJ and brings Spiral’s total amount raised to $3.7 million. With the new funding, Mangubat plans to expand product development, as well as sales and marketing.

“We’re really excited to have DFJ as a partner,” Mangubat said. “They have a history of investing in really forward-looking companies. It’s nice to be supported by a group that wants to have such an impact on future industries.”

Spiral Genetics announced a new partnership with Omicia, a provider of clinical genome sequence interpretation tools that’s based in Emeryville, Calif.

The 26-year-old Mangubat launched Spiral Genetics three years ago. It’s her third startup. Soft-spoken and personable, she displays a formidable intelligence and a quiet intensity that provide a clue to how she so quickly guided her company to prominence in a rapidly growing industry.

One of her strongest assets is being smart enough to know that she doesn’t know everything.

“My primary job, in many ways, is to find people that are way smarter than me and make sure they have all the resources they need to get their job done,” she said. “It’s not just about raw smarts; it’s also about values and culture fit.”

Building the right culture at Spiral is extremely important to Mangubat, who wants to change the world one company at a time. To her, the human element is as important as any other facet, and that means empowering employees.

“If you were to ask people at Spiral, they would say that it’s a pretty different environment,” she said. “That’s partly because of the culture we set up, but it’s also partly because of the goal. There are a lot of companies in the world, and a lot of people can’t claim the job they’re doing is really dramatically impacting and changing the world.

“A company is not its intellectual property and that stuff; it’s the people. It very much requires as much nurturing and understanding its human components as an understanding of all the crazy technical stuff. You have to have both in order to make a functional company, because otherwise you’ll just have lots of smart people that are absolutely miserable, and they won’t follow you through the uncertain times.”

Mangubat has a psychology degree from the University of Washington, with a focus on biopsychology, psychopharmacology and entrepreneurship. Before Spiral, she worked on startups in home automation and green-tech, smart-grid technology. She chose bioinformatics for her latest venture, because of its potential to make a difference.

“When I look at the industries in the world that are going to have the greatest impact on the most people, genetics is really high on the list,” she said. “It impacts everything, from the healthcare treatment that we get to the food that we eat to the types of fuels that we use and their effects on the environment, it’s all affected by our understanding of the genome.”

Spiral Genertics helps scientists do just that.

Sequencing the human genome is a massive task that can take enormous amounts of time and money, but Spiral’s platform makes the process substantially faster and cheaper. Spiral uses open-source algorithms and distributed computing — essentially, renting hundreds of linked computers from Amazon’s cloud to all work on the same problem — to accelerate the analysis.

There are competitors out there, but Spiral’s goal is to be faster and more accurate than anyone else, producing the highest-quality data possible.

“It’s not as an exact science,” Mangubat said. “Basically there are a lot of different steps in doing DNA analysis. Part of it is essentially just detangling the world’s most gigantic puzzle.”

Three years ago, just preparing the sample for analysis could cost $100,000 and take 30 days. And that was just to read the raw data without any analysis. Now that process now happen in a day, for $3,000.

Although the market is still highly fragmented and in a constant state of flux, Spiral hopes to eventually establish an industrywide benchmark for accuracy in DNA analysis.

Mangubat was born in Silver Spring, Md., and moved to Seattle at age three. Her father is a doctor and her mother helped him run his practice. She described herself as “a relatively normal kid,” who early on discovered her passion for science.

“I was a huge nerd,” she said with a smile. “I was super fascinated with space. When I was little I really wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be the first person on Mars for a long time. But then they weren’t taking astronauts anymore, so I was like, what else can I do?”

Youthful forays into physics and astronomy led her to the UW physics program. She spent her freshman year in the “hard-core track” that included high-level math and foreign language courses — in her case, Russian. But she didn’t sense a lot of passion from a faculty that she felt was more focused on their research than their students. She enrolled in Psychology 101 as a sophomore. That became the springboard to classes she found more interesting.

In a capstone class on entretreneurship she met Becky Drees, a Spiral cofounder, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Cal-Berkeley and is the company’s chief scientific officer. Jeremy Bruestle, the chief technical officer, is another cofounder. Mangubat has remained involved with that entrepreneurship class, returning to mentor student entrepreneurs only a few years younger than she is.

She also likes Oaxia, a form of blues dancing that involves partners but no formal steps. It’s entirely dictated by the music and the person who’s leading. And the heavens will always hold a special place in her heart.

So, with commercial space travel getting closer to reality, would she climb aboard a spacecraft if she had an extra $200,000 lying around?

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Some day I’m definitely doing that. And we’re not doing the suborbit thing; before I die I want to go all the way around at least once.”

Who better to venture into space than a young entrepreneur who knows a thing or two about reaching for the stars?

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