Researchers across the globe are developing medicines based on technology that would have sounded like science-fiction a few years ago: cancer vaccines, stem cells that cure genetic disorders, brain-computer implants and more. But the clinical trial process to bring these advances to market is stuck in the 20th century: time-consuming and clunky, managed with spreadsheets and reams of paper, making data difficult to access and share.
Derk Arts is changing that with the company he founded in his basement: Castor. His aim is to “bring medical research to the 21st century by allowing researchers all across the world to very efficiently run clinical trials.”
Already powering 4,000 clinical trials across 90 countries, the Amsterdam-based company announced Wednesday that it has raised $12 million in series A funding to continue scaling up and boost its U.S. presence. The round was led by Two Sigma Ventures, along with existing investors INKEF Capital, the venture arm of the Dutch pension fund ABP, and Hambrecht Ducera Growth Ventures. This brings Castor’s total venture funding to $18.25 million.
Now the company has more than 70 employees and the platform has collected more than 180 million data points. The new funding will help Castor continue “aggressively expanding” in the U.S. market, where it has offices in Hoboken, New Jersey, and build up its commercial customer base among biopharma and medical device companies. Castor will also use the funds to build out its patient-facing technology, which includes video-enabled consent to remotely enroll patients in clinical trials.
One major source of growth has been the coronavirus pandemic: More than 200 Covid-19 projects across 33 countries are currently using Castor, including the World Health Organization which is using the platform for its Solidarity clinical trial to help identify Covid-19 treatments, according to the company. Castor is providing its platform free of charge to non-profit institutions for Covid-related research.
Castor was born out of Arts’ own experience with clunky medical research interfaces. In 2012, he had finished his medical degree and was starting a PhD in medical informatics at the University of Amsterdam. At the time, he was working as a freelance programmer to help pay the bills. “I saw academic researchers all around me struggling with paper and with spreadsheets,” says Arts. He began coding the program that served as the first iteration of his company’s product, selling it to friends in the research community to help with data collection.
Castor’s popularity among academic researchers provided the initial proof of concept to help sell the product in the commercial world, says Villi Iltchev, a partner at Two Sigma Ventures. As he surveyed existing software solutions for clinical trials, Iltchev mostly encountered legacy companies with difficult to navigate systems. “All of those systems were built and designed for the massive blockbuster drugs,” says Iltchev. They are especially difficult to use for post-market studies. By comparison, Castor was offering an easy-to-use cloud solution that “makes the whole process of enrolling patients and collecting research data seamless and easy,” he says.
Most customers start using Castor for a single project. But because of its ease of use, says Arts, those customers tend to move from the project-based product to a bundled subscription package allowing for multiple trials to run at the same time. “We try to make it as smooth as possible for our customers because ultimately, we want to facilitate them completing their research as quickly as possible,” he says.
While the bulk of the company’s revenue will ultimately come from commercial customers, Arts isn’t losing sight of the importance of academic research. He’s focused on ensuring that educational institutions continue to have access to its platform. The coronavirus pandemic has only served to further highlight the need for Castor, Arts says. “As humanity, we need to start thinking about how important this research data is and how we maximize its impact,” Arts says. “And start to leverage technology that can help us to make sure that that data is still valuable five years from now; 10 years from now; 100 years from now.”