AI team at In­sil­i­co gets some ma­jor league back­ing from Chi­na as Alex Zha­voronkov builds glob­al net­work

Some of Asia’s top biotech in­vestors are back­ing Alex Zha­voronkov’s AI shop at In­sil­i­co Med­i­cine.

It’s a long way from a megaround, falling in­to an un­spec­i­fied slot in the $5 mil­lion to $10 mil­lion range, but Zha­voronkov has al­lied him­self with some of the most in­ter­est­ing peo­ple in drug de­vel­op­ment. And he’s us­ing this new mon­ey to ex­pand his glob­al net­work of AI ex­perts as he im­me­di­ate­ly be­gins to go af­ter a new raise to back a big­ger game plan.

Ge Li

This new round is led by WuXi AppTec, the high-fly­ing dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op­ment out­fit based in Shang­hai and helmed by Ge Li, who of­fered an in­flu­en­tial shout out by not­ing that the two com­pa­nies share a “mu­tu­al vi­sion that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ma­chine learn­ing will op­ti­mize the drug dis­cov­ery process by in­creas­ing the prob­a­bil­i­ty of suc­cess at the pre-clin­i­cal lev­el.”

Sin­ga­pore’s Temasek al­so got in­volved, along with Pe­ter Dia­man­dis’ — of X Prize fame — BOLD Cap­i­tal. Longevi­ty biotech Ju­ve­nes­cence, backed by UK bil­lion­aire Jim Mel­lon and al­lied with Zha­voronkov’s AI op­er­a­tion, al­so came back to chip in­to the round.

“We have col­lab­o­rat­ed with WuXi for over a year now,” Zha­voronkov tells me, “we know them.”

Be­fore Ge Li and his col­leagues de­cid­ed to back the AI shop, he ex­plained in a pre­view to the an­nounce­ment, they start­ed out a year ago val­i­dat­ing their work us­ing known path­ways. Zha­voronkov has been us­ing ma­chine learn­ing to build mol­e­cules, and he start­ed out by prov­ing that he could do it on projects with well un­der­stood bi­ol­o­gy. Now that they’ve passed that test, WuXi and In­sil­i­co are go­ing in­to vir­gin ter­ri­to­ry, build­ing new mol­e­cules aimed at or­phan tar­gets “from scratch” us­ing a neur­al net­work as they build a new dis­cov­ery plat­form with WuXi’s top chemists.

Zha­voronkov poured every­thing he has in­to the com­pa­ny to get it start­ed, and these grow­ing in­ter­na­tion­al con­nec­tions are cen­tral to build­ing the com­pa­ny. In­sil­i­co now has 52 staffers spread from new of­fices in Rockville, MD in­to Eu­rope, Rus­sia and Asia, where a team of 6 work in Tai­wan. His next step, he says, is aimed right at the ex­plod­ing Chi­nese mar­ket.

In AI, he says, “if you’re not in Chi­na now, you’re not go­ing to ex­ist.”

In the mean­time, he’s fo­cused on build­ing his busi­ness de­vel­op­ment team, look­ing to re­cruit some new play­ers.

AI shops have been boom­ing is a va­ri­ety of big op­er­a­tions con­sid­er the ways the tech­nol­o­gy can be used to stream­line drug de­vel­op­ment and im­prove odds of suc­cess — a propo­si­tion that still has a con­sid­er­able ways to go be­fore we start see­ing how it can af­fect the out­put of new drugs that go in­to hu­man test­ing. For big com­pa­nies deeply en­gaged in dis­cov­ery, though, it re­mains a com­pelling ap­proach to pipeline build­ing.

Just a few weeks ago Zha­voronkov al­lied with George Church on a col­lab­o­ra­tion mix­ing Neb­u­la Ge­nomics’ blockchain work with his deep learn­ing ex­perts to build a new plat­form for health­care da­ta. And he con­tin­ues to build re­la­tions with some of the most close­ly watched de­vel­op­ers in the in­dus­try, in­clud­ing Glax­o­SmithK­line.


Im­age: Alex Zha­voronkov. HEALTH TECH­NOLO­GIES TV via YOUTUBE

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.