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.

Jef­frey Lu

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.

Hu Li

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.

Jim Collins

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

Brian Kaspar. AveXis via Twitter

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I reached out to Brian Kaspar after Novartis put out word that he and his brother Allen had been axed in mid-May, two months after the company became aware of the allegations related to manipulated data. His response came back through his attorneys.

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Ritu Baral Cowen
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