A transpacific biotech startup combines Asian investors and some seriously trendy science out of MIT
Synthetic biologist Timothy Lu has been doing some mind blowing scientific work at MIT. A few months ago he and some of his colleagues wrote up their work designing and creating mammalian genetic circuits that could be used to spawn, say, a whole new breed of T cells that could be engineered to go on the attack against cancer cells — with built-in triggers to a set of biomarkers.
This fascination with synthetic biology — along with some close ties to the leaders in this emerging field — has spurred Lu to partner with his brother Jeffrey on creating a transpacific biotech dubbed Engine Biosciences that plans to integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning with hands-on lab work in drug development to create a whole new kind of drug development platform, one they say can test a dizzying array of genetic interactions in parallel in search of those needles in the data intense haystack that can point to multiple drug programs.
It is the buzziest of all biotech types focused on some of the trendiest discovery work now dominating the discussion in biopharma’s preclinical circles. That’s pretty good for a company that currently has 6 full-time employees. But there’s also more here than lab projects and science papers.
Today Engine is taking the wraps off a $10 million seed round coming from a collection of some very serious investors funding the current burst of biotech activity in places like Shanghai and Singapore.
The money is coming from a set of investors with deep roots in Asia: DHVC (AI specialists at Danhua Capital) and 6 Dimensions Capital (recently formed through the merger of Frontline Bioventures and WuXi Healthcare Ventures in May 2017). WuXi AppTec, Singapore’s EDBI, Temasek sub Pavilion Capital, Baidu Ventures, WI Harper, and Nest.Bio Ventures also got involved.
The work at Engine will be done in the Bay Area and Singapore, where Timothy Lu has a lab. And it will involve a slate of some big names in the field: Mayo Clinic assistant professor Hu Li, University of California San Diego assistant professor Prashant Mali, and co-chair of the scientific advisory board and MIT professor Jim Collins.
The drug development cycle as we know it now is challenged by complex biology and a one-by-one approach that invites slow development timelines and extraordinarily high failure rates, says CEO and co-founder Jeffrey Lu. Figuring out everything from target discovery to stratification of patient populations requires a complex assessment of all those factors.
Their platform looks to answer those questions in a fast and efficient manner.
“That’s the mission of the company,” says Jeffrey Lu.
That covers a vast amount of possibilities, of course, so Engine is narrowing it down to oncology, with work underway on liver cancer and ovarian cancer, and construction in process on a neurodegenerative platform. There’s also a project for skin aging, working with a skin care group. And there are plans to partner early and often.
“We thought it was important to have a wet lab biology data generation tool that generates our own proprietary dataset so we can train algorithms to get better and better, improving the predictive capabilities of our in silico methods,” says Jeffrey Lu. And now that the seed round is in place, he’ll be doubling or tripling the small staff by the end of this year to start turning their platform dreams into reality.
The money, he says, should last two years.
Image: Timothy Lu. MIT Campaign for a Better World