Micronoma’s founders each contribute unique skill sets and know-how to the company’s cutting-edge cancer detection platform. 

For any team to be successful, each member must bring something unique to the table. At the same time, the individual pieces and parts must complement the others and when combined, add up to a winning formula. This is true in sports, the business world, academia and science. The Micronoma team checks all those boxes and more, and the result is a revolutionary method for early cancer detection.

In the case of Micronoma founders Rob Knight, PhD, Sandrine Miller-Montgomery, PharmD, PhD, and Greg Sepich-Poore, PhD and MD candidate, the team is equal parts biologic and computational scientific backgrounds, with proven business acumen to round things out. When combined, the threesome delivers the experience needed to take cancer detection to the next level.

It would be easy to simply label the team a spinoff of the UCSD team that analyzed data for 33 cancer types from a large database. While true, certain stars had to align before their vision could become reality.

In fact—if it weren’t for the tenacity of Sepich-Poore, the team’s youngest member (27 years old at the time of this post)—Micronoma might not have found flight when it did in 2019. Attending a microbiome conference in 2017, Sepich-Poore approached Miller-Montgomery to discuss his proposal to study the cancer microbiome under Knight within Knight’s Center for Microbiome Innovation (CMI) at UCSD. Miller-Montgomery was CMI’s executive director at the time and was well practiced at politely deflecting such proposals, which numbered too many to count and most of the time is driven by a “star stuck” motivation.

But Sepich-Poore was a totally different case.

Unlike the numerous students who sought opportunities to work under the world-renowned Knight, Sepich-Poore came to Miller-Montgomery extraordinarily prepared and knowledgeable. According to Miller-Montgomery, he had his thesis all lined up with a very clear knowledge of the current state of affairs and an explanation of how his approach could bring new light to cancer biology. In addition, much like Miller-Montgomery, Sepich-Poore had his own very personal motivation for wanting to further early cancer detection research.

The right place at the right time

When Sepich-Poore approached Miller-Montgomery at that conference, he not only made an impression for his ambitious thesis on cancer detection but for his “why” as well.

As a college freshman, Sepich-Poore experienced the tragic loss of his grandmother to pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed too late at stage IV, Sepich-Poore’s grandmother rapidly declined and passed in about a month. The experience became his north star as he has pushed the envelope in cancer research.

Miller-Montgomery also has a personal why for joining the Micronoma team. Her husband has experienced cancer, and her mother is a “cancer collector,” having suffered through multiple types of cancer in her lifetime, with no familial known gene to explain this. The first of these cancers was when Miller-Montgomery was only 11, and this made a lasting impression on the nastiness of the disease and what a beast it is to beat. Both founders are deeply committed to improving early detection—when there is a chance at curative treatment—for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been touched by the disease in some way, shape or form.

While Sepich-Poore brought the cutting-edge thesis to the team, Miller-Montgomery brought a unique background as a scientist turned business leader. As a PharmD and PhD, her original intent was to pursue a career in academia, but while working on her post-doc in San Diego, she decided to pursue a career in industry. She shortly thereafter fell into an opportunity to take on project management for a large biotech corporation. Acquiring new broad skills while applying them to scientific advances, Miller-Montgomery has led a host of companies in their marketing efforts, R & D, and preparation for successful exits as those entities became acquisitions of larger entities. After one of these successful exits, Knight, who she knew as a key customer, having used many of her company products in his microbiome projects, invited her to co-lead the UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation, where she successfully honed her funding skill set to help advance science, and ultimately met Sepich-Poore.

Sepich-Poore’s background is also multi-layered and includes early entrepreneurial success. Helping to co-found a medtech company at age 22, he played a role in developing and patenting a low-cost spirometer to help patients with asthma. While pursuing his MD/PhD at UCSD’s Medical Scientist Training Program, he’s not only co-founded Micronoma, but led or contributed to numerous peer-reviewed papers for journals like Nature, Science, and Cell.

But let’s not forget that undergirding the founding team is Knight, whose groundbreaking work in microbiome research put him on the map years ago. He has authored two books on the topic, won numerous awards for his efforts, and delivered a much-lauded TED talk in 2014 with over 2.1 million views thus far. His works have been cited more than 265,000 times to date, which places him in the top 100 most cited scientific authors.

And, it was Knight who convinced Miller-Montgomery to temporarily rejoin academia, which she did at CMI for three years. All of which put Miller-Montgomery, Sepich-Poore and Knight together in the right place, at the right time to work on the cancer microbiome.

Finding gold in the garbage

When Miller-Montgomery first had a look at Sepich-Poore’s preliminary results, she brought to it a healthy scientific skepticism. What she saw felt “too good to be true,” but the deeper the trio went down the rabbit hole, the more she bought in. With what Sepich-Poore labeled “finding gold in the garbage”—zeroing in on cancer sequencing data that did not align to the host genome and was usually ignored as “sequencing error” or “artifacts”—the team found strong microbial signals and filed for IP in 2018 on the use of non-human nucleic acids for cancer detection and more. After founding the company in 2019, they officially launched Micronoma with the Oncobiota™ platform in 2020 and their successful seed financing.

The patent-pending Oncobiota™ platform isolates, amplifies and sequences a large number of circulating microbial nucleic acids. From there, the platform is developed to identify patterns in the data that match those known to associate with the presence and type of cancer. These markers are key because they can show up long before traditional detection methods find signs of cancer. A combination of artificial intelligence and bioinformatics tools, combined with microbiome science, is what leads to detection. Taken together, each part of the unique platform reflects the contributions of this unique founding team.

Today, Miller-Montgomery is again wearing her business hat, serving as president, CEO, and board member. Sepich-Poore fills the role of chief analytics officer and board member, and Knight serves on the scientific advisory board. Together, they are working to fast-track microbiome-driven liquid biopsies to detect one cancer at a time in the earliest-stage of the disease.

The team’s first focus is on lung cancer, where the five-year survival rate currently stands at only 20 percent. Following success there, the team will likely turn its attention to liver and pancreatic cancers. In all cases, the team is applying its rich and varied skill set to formulate a powerful method for microbiome-driven early cancer detection.