Healthcare firms were pushed to confront racism. Now some are investing in Black startups.


Jumpstart Nova is the lead investor in three of the four companies it’s working with so far. That means Whitney’s team scrutinizes the business plan, vouches for the founder, and draws up all the financial and legal documents so it’s easier for others to come along.

“It’s validation. You need someone to say, ‘We’re in,’” said Dr. Derrell Porter, founder of San Francisco-based Cellevolve Bio, one of the first startups to land a lead investment from Jumpstart Nova. 

His firm is trying to streamline the process of commercializing promising cell therapies. Hundreds are in development, and of those, each is customized for a patient by using the patient’s own cells. The therapies target cancer, central nervous system diseases, or viruses. Cellevolve is partnering with academic medical centers and small biotech companies in an attempt to make the commercializing process more similar to how a pharmaceutical company shepherds a drug to market.

“Marcus was one of the few investors that I spoke to that immediately got what we’re talking about,” Porter said. “He was like, ‘This is either not going to work at all, or it’s going to be massive. It’s nowhere in between.’”

Porter said his only discomfort has been feeling pressured at times to play the role of a Black entrepreneur with a hard-scrabble upbringing. “Folks are looking for the story to tug on their heart strings,” he said. “But that wasn’t my life.”

He grew up in Compton, California, in a middle-class family, with a mother who is a nurse and a father in construction. “I can’t tell you this traumatic, inner-city, drama-filled narrative,” said Porter, who has an M.D. and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Jumpstart is primarily looking for Black-led companies with untapped profit potential. But the venture fund’s backers also say they expect some startups will work on fixing health inequities.

One of the fund’s initial investments is in DrugViu, which consolidates the medical records of people with autoimmune diseases — particularly underrepresented people of color — so their personal health data can more easily be included in scientific research.

Dr. James Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, said he hopes some startups will work to ensure health inequities don’t get worse, especially now that so many new companies in healthcare are built around using artificial intelligence. Hildreth said he fears what big data could do without Black representation in the decision-making process or — as DrugViu is trying to resolve — in the clinical data.

“The people designing the algorithms can unconsciously sometimes put their own biases into how the algorithms are designed and how they function,” he said.

The historically Black medical school launched its own for-profit arm in 2021 to seek “profitable activities that align with Meharry’s mission of eliminating health disparities.” Meharry has also invested in the Jumpstart Nova fund. Hildreth said he sees it as an opportunity to make money and to make a statement to students.

“We believe enough in the ingenuity, the innovation, and the intelligence of folks who look like us that we’re willing to invest in them,” Hildreth said. “With the expectation that the companies that come out of this fund are going to have a huge impact, not just on our communities, but people in general.” 

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.



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