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Alto Neuroscience Emerges From Stealth With $40M Aimed At Matching Patients And Drugs

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Alto Neuroscience, a “precision psychiatry” startup, emerged from stealth mode Thursday with $40 million in funding raised to date, 11 potential drugs at various stages of study, and a platform it says could help treat mental health conditions more quickly than traditional treatment options. 

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The Los Altos, California-based startup’s work, which has been quietly underway since 2019, picks up from decades of study on mental health condition identification and treatment. But it pulls most directly from work one of its co-founders, Amit Etkin, did while a professor at Stanford University using brain imaging to determine who would benefit from taking the antidepressant Zoloft, versus who would not.  

That method of determining outcomes for patients looking for relief from mental health conditions, it turns out, can be quite effective, Etkin said in a recent interview with Crunchbase News.

The Stanford research showed “we can predict treatment outcomes and we can find subgroups of patients based on biology in ways that are invisible to traditional clinical measures,” Etkin said.

Alto Neuroscience raised $8 million in its seed funding round and then another $32 million in a Series A led by Apeiron Investment Group, founded by billionaire investor Christian Angermayer

“Alto is well-positioned to revolutionize the treatment of psychiatric disorders by aligning the right patient with the right drug,” Angermayer said in a news release Thursday. “At Apeiron, we have seen recent advancements attempting to expand the toolkit for mental well-being but continue to recognize the dire need to improve the way drugs are developed in this space and believe Alto is the team to make precision psychiatry a reality.”

Other investors include Windham Partners, What If Ventures, Able Partners, Tim Kendall, and more. 

The move from academia to startup, Etkin said, was primarily about speed and growth. 

“I loved my time at Stanford, I fast-tracked to a full professorship and a full tenured professorship, so all that’s wonderful,” he said. “But we could just never get big enough or go fast enough to escape this gravitational pull of just writing more papers, worrying about grants. It’s just a different scale.” 

So, he and co-founders Dan Segal and Wei Wu started Alto Neuroscience. The company analyzes biomarkers, or information on emotions, cognitive function and sleep, from patients via computerized behavioral tests and wearables, or by using in-home brain imaging technology—devices that can be used outside a lab to make the process more accessible and easy for patients, which Etkin notes have been humans, not animals. 

In fact, Alto Neuroscience is currently seeking out clinics and clinicians who want to partner with the company in data-gathering and trials, he said. 

From there, the markers the company collects can give mental health professionals a better idea about what could help, whether that be a drug or some other type of treatment. The company is coming up with its own drug treatments based on what it has learned. 

This process is in contrast to traditional mental health treatment, in which it may take several tries to find the correct drug or dosage for someone struggling with a mental health condition. 

So far, Alto Neuroscience has three drugs in Phase 2a studies—which evaluate effectiveness—for major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Those could enter the final, large studies needed for FDA approval by mid-2023, the company says. 

The startup’s stretch goal, however, is to help lift some of the stigma associated with mental health issues. 

“You don’t go to your cardiologist and just give your feelings. They do a test,” Etkin said. “They’re part and parcel: You feel bad, you can’t climb stairs, you can’t engage in activities and that’s your own experience, but the test tells you how to deal with it. If we make that transformation around mental health, the impact, culturally and societally, not just medically, is massive. Probably half of patients with mental health conditions don’t ever get treatment because of these barriers.” 

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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