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One in 36 children in the U.S. has autism, according to the CDC. Research shows that the earlier a child gets diagnosed, the better their developmental outcome will be. EarliTec Diagnostics just raised fresh capital to expand its system that helps clinicians diagnose children as young as 16 months old.

The Atlanta-based startup’s FDA-authorized approach involves a child watching short videos and social interactions on a screen for 12 minutes while the device, using AI, tracks the child’s eye movements. According to EarliTec, children with autism won’t focus on the video the same way that kids without autism will.

The startup raised a $21.5 million Series B round co-led by Nexus NeuroTech Ventures, a venture firm focused on backing companies creating solutions for brain disorders, and Venture Investors, a Midwestern venture fund that invests in healthcare companies. The startup’s tech is currently used by eight clinicians across six states in the U.S.

EarliTec Diagnostics CEO Tom Ressemann told TechCrunch that traditional autism diagnoses involve three- or four hour-assessments that can have lengthy waitlists. EarliTec’s 12-minute test is designed to help clinicians get to a diagnosis faster, which helps them work with more children.

“You have to be able to work into their current workflow,” Ressemann said. “So with a test like ours that is flexible where you access it, it could be at the child’s home, it could be at a clinic or a school, it’s a tablet, we can work into most workflows. A quicker diagnosis is better for the child and the parent.”

The company plans to use the money to continue to expand its commercialization, Ressemann said. EarliTec currently works with children aged 16 months to 30 months and plans to funnel some of its fresh capital into research that could help the company expand the age group the system can diagnose. It also hopes the capital can help improve assessment and treatment options.

Ressemann, who was CEO at several other medical device startups prior to EarliTec, including Amphora Medical and Entellus Medical, said this fundraise was the most challenging and yet the most rewarding. He said despite the prevalence of autism in the U.S., it’s still a hard area in which to fundraise because only certain investors are interested in the space. But that’s starting to change.

The reason this deal intrigued me so much was that there seems to be growing momentum and interest in the autism-focused healthcare space from VCs; prior to 2021, this was more rare.

The Autism Impact Fund closed a $60 million fund, 20% higher than its $50 million target, this week. The Autism Impact Fund isn’t the only firm investing in the space, either. Divergent Ventures raised a $10 million fund in 2021 that focuses on early-stage companies across the neurodiversity space. EarliTec backer Nexus NeuroTech Ventures was just launched in 2023.

Several startups in the space have raised notable rounds, too. Cortica, which does diagnoses and treatment plans, has raised more than $175 million in venture funding from firms including CVS Health Ventures and .406 Ventures. Forta, family-focused autism therapy, has raised more than $55 million from backers including Insight Partners and Alumni Fund. Opya, a digital therapy platform for autism, has raised more than $19 million from backers including SoftBank’s Open Opportunity Fund.

Ressemann said the breadth of diagnosis and assessment tools and treatments has changed rapidly since he and his wife went through the diagnosis and treatment process years ago with their now 27-year-old son.

While it’s been great to see startups and venture backing treatments and tools to support children with autism, you always wonder why investors have gotten interested in backing solutions now — or why they weren’t before. I asked Ressemann what he thought, and he said that awareness of the condition’s prevalence has made a big difference.

“Just a few years ago it was considered to be one in a 1,000 children, it’s now one in 36,” Ressemann said. “That’s awareness.”

This makes a lot of sense. My mind had always considered the goal of awareness campaigns to be that more people without the condition understood its prevalence, but I hadn’t considered that more information out there would also help lead to more diagnoses, giving a more accurate picture of just how many people this actually affects. Having those numbers in hand helps investors see the total addressable market and opportunity.

“There is an attraction to the size and the magnitude of the problem,” Ressemann said regarding recent VC interest. “Where there is a large unmet need there is often interest to get into that.”

Hopefully investors stay interested because more money going into startups like this that can help children with developmental delays and disorders, and that can make VCs money, seems like a great strategy to make a return while directly improving people’s lives.

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