As China's tech giants catch onto biotech, Baidu plots $2B startup focused on diagnosis, AI drug discovery
When China’s biggest search engine builder forays into biotech, expect it to move in large strides.
Baidu is reportedly scouting around for investors to collectively put $2 billion behind a biotech startup that would leverage its artificial intelligence technologies in disease diagnosis and drug discovery — following in the footsteps of American tech giants while joining its Chinese counterparts in making healthcare investments.
The goal is not to be a controlling shareholder, according to insiders who told Reuters about the plan. CNBC later confirmed the discussions, reporting that the startup will likely be a standalone company rather than a subsidiary.
CEO Robin Li is personally involved in the project, sources said, the idea for which first came about six months ago.
Baidu isn’t coming in entirely uninformed. Through its venture arm, it has invested in AI startups such as Atomwise and Insilico, as well as diagnostic player Polaris Biology and T cell therapy developer RootPath.
At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in China back in February, Baidu also open-sourced its RNA prediction algorithm LinearFold in hopes of helping frontline researchers better understand how SARS-CoV-2 is spreading. It promised to reduce overall analysis time from 55 minutes to 27 seconds, or 120 times faster.
Although Alibaba and Tencent have backed healthcare ventures, they have historically focused on telemedicine, medical image analysis, drug distribution and even insurance, aiding R&D only indirectly through their tools.
In contrast, Google parent Alphabet has launched a whole subsidiary — Verily — dedicated to life science research. Google itself has allied with Sanofi in a pact similar to what Microsoft inked with Novartis, where the tech titans lend their computational powers to solve the pharma giants’ most pressing challenges.
But the pandemic has evidently pushed biopharma to the top of Chinese tech executives’ agendas. Tencent launched its own AI drug discovery platform in July called iDrug, and Baidu announced one month later that it will be opening up two new labs focused on biostatistics and biosafety.
The yet-to-be-named new startup is expected to materialize within the next three years.