citybiz+ Mental Health Startup Polaris Genomics Gets $1 Million Backing

Polaris Genomics, a Gaithersburg, Md., startup taking a new approach toward mental health, has raised $1 million in investment from an undisclosed source.

So far, the company has raised $3.4 million, including $2 million in a seed round in 2020. Its backers include Viking Global Investors, of Greenwich, Conn.; Sanford Health, of Fargo, N.D.; and Wing Venture Capital, Menlo Park, Calif. Polaris, which was previously known as TruGenomix, has also won a $200,000 grant from the George Shultz Innovation Fund and other funding from the United States Air Force.

Clinical Tests

Founded by the duo of Charles Cathlin and Tshaka Cunningham, Polaris emerged from an accelerator program at biotech company Illumina. It seeks to establish the biological underpinnings of mental illness, notably PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. Polaris’ approach, among other things, would mean mental health can be diagnosed from clinical tests, without relying on subjective questionnaires.

Cathlin is a 23-year US Air Force and Public Health Service veteran who has served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Kosovo. He also witnessed first-hand the trauma caused to firefighters and police officers by the 9/11 terror attacks. Cunningham is a molecular biologist with degrees from Princeton and Rockefeller universities.

“Our mission is to make…invisible wounds visible using the power of genomics,” Polaris Cathlin told Illumina in an interview last year. “We believe genomics is a driving force to connect mental illness to its biological underpinnings. By doing that, we can decrease the stigma, suffering, silence, and suicide.”

Polaris, founded in 2017, has developed TruGen-1, a 1003-gene panel that supports genomic research for several neuropsychiatric conditions and a blood test called PTS-ID to screen patients who might be at risk of PTSD. It also has in its pipeline a “more precise diagnostic tool” called PTS-Dx.

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“We wouldn’t diagnose cancer or Covid by asking a set of questions,” Cathlin said. “We would have a lab test, and that’s what we’re trying to develop.”

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Simple biological markers and tests could bring early identification of mental health illnesses, cutting the reliance on subjective surveys. “We are trying to bring objectivity and tie it to the underlying biology,” said Polaris Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Naclerio, a pediatric intensive care physician who spent 30 years in the US Army.


  • Polaris won a $1.25 million grant for Phase II funding from the United States Air Force’s AFWERX Program for Small Business Innovation Research.
  • In 2020, Polaris won a $100,000 matching grant from Maryland Industrial Partnerships and partnered with researchers at the University of Maryland Baltimore to test the performance of the genomic blood test PTS-ID.
  • Polaris was one of 30 finalists in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ #MissionDaybreak, a $20 million challenge to reduce veteran suicides. As a finalist, it received $250,000 and advanced to Phase 2.