Venky Soundararajan (via Medium)

A for aug­ment­ed: Cam­bridge AI com­pa­ny out to cap­ture bio­med­ical knowl­edge gets $60M from Mayo, Sil­i­con Val­ley VC

The Mayo Clin­ic is join­ing hands with a Sil­i­con Val­ley VC firm to in­ject $60 mil­lion in­to nfer­ence, a Cam­bridge, MA-based play­er in the gold rush to cap­i­tal­ize on bio­phar­ma’s grow­ing in­ter­est — and urge — to ac­cel­er­ate drug dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op­ment us­ing the lat­est ma­chine learn­ing tools.

While nfer­ence os­ten­si­bly be­longs to a gen­er­a­tion of soft­ware star­tups that cropped up around 2013, it doesn’t see it­self as part of the AI main­stream, founder and CSO Venky Soundarara­jan tells End­points News. That’s why the A in their AI stands for aug­ment­ed, not ar­ti­fi­cial.

“To put it blunt­ly, we are not in the busi­ness of re­plac­ing hu­man ex­perts,” he said.

Rather, nfer­ence is in­ter­est­ed in teach­ing soft­ware to comb through un­struc­tured bio­med­ical in­for­ma­tion — clin­i­cal notes, case re­ports, sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture, pathol­o­gy im­ages, ECG wave­forms and ge­nom­ic se­quences — and ren­der them com­putable. By cap­tur­ing and syn­the­siz­ing dif­fer­ent bod­ies of knowl­edge, the goal is to of­fer a one-stop shop that re­searchers can con­sult at any point of the R&D process, whether they are try­ing to make new com­pounds or de­sign­ing a clin­i­cal tri­al.

Soundarara­jan sug­gest­ed that’s the type of AI com­pa­ny that Bill Gates said he would build if he were to start a new ven­ture in this age, one “whose goal would be to teach com­put­ers how to read, so that they can ab­sorb and un­der­stand all the writ­ten knowl­edge of the world,” in the Mi­crosoft founder’s words.

Two of the top 10 bio­phar­ma com­pa­nies are al­ready on board as part­ners, ac­cord­ing to Soundarara­jan. With the Se­ries B, he hopes to add a new ser­vice around “con­text rich phe­no­types,” which would en­able the map­ping of ge­nom­ic da­ta to phe­no­types.

An­drew Danielsen

“Our strate­gic in­vest­ment in nfer­ence is a re­flec­tion of our con­fi­dence that a holis­tic knowl­edge syn­the­sis plat­form, that puts pa­tient pri­va­cy first, is the so­lu­tion for ef­fec­tive­ly lever­ag­ing re­al world ev­i­dence to spur in­no­va­tion to ben­e­fit pa­tient care,” An­drew Danielsen, chair of Mayo Clin­ic Ven­tures, said in a state­ment.

In fact, the re­search cen­ter has been so con­fi­dent in the tech that it’s set up a joint ven­ture with nfer­ence –dubbed Qra­tiv — to re­pur­pose ther­a­pies for rare dis­eases.

NTT Ven­ture Cap­i­tal joined Mayo for the round, which al­so in­clud­ed ex­ist­ing in­vestors Ma­trix Part­ners and Ma­trix Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment.

Out­side their head­quar­ters in Cam­bridge, nfer­ence’s 150-strong staff is spread be­tween Ban­ga­lore, Toron­to and Min­neso­ta, Soundarara­jan added, and he’s ex­plor­ing an ex­pan­sion to Eu­rope.

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.