Backers of Tesla and SpaceX fund 29-year-old Alice Zhang's AI-powered neuroscience startup
The battered field of neuroscience has a dogged new player: a team of young, renegade PhDs who say they’re harnessing genomics and artificial intelligence to revive the ailing industry.
The San Francisco venture is called Verge Genomics, and it’s led by a spunky 29-year-old PhD dropout — Alice Zhang — who says she’s determined to push neuroscience R&D out of its decades-long slump. Jumping to her cause is DFJ Ventures, a tech investor who has the likes of Twitter, SpaceX, and Tesla in its portfolio. The VC firm led Verge’s $32 million Series A round, which was announced this morning. It’s not DFJ’s first rodeo in the field, however, as it’s already backed genomics A-listers like Human Longevity and Synthetic Genomics.
But it’s not just tech money that’s backing Verge. Joining DFJ are a number of biotech investors, including WuXi and the ALS Investment Fund. That’s because Verge isn’t strictly a tech company, nor is it strictly a drugmaker, Zhang tells me. “We’re exactly in the middle,” she says.
Verge is building a massive database — one of the largest in the field, they say — of genomic patient data from ALS and Parkinson’s patients. The startup is teaming up with a dozen universities and government organizations to get their hands on patient brain samples from those who have passed away from neuro conditions. Once at Verge, the brain samples are sequenced and the data are fed to the company’s machine learning software. The plan, of course, is to cull some insights from this data, then determine some promising drug targets and build out the company’s pipeline.
“Neuroscience is at least a decade behind cancer in terms of leveraging computational techniques and data,” Zhang says. “In addition to machine learning, we’re going through a renaissance in neurobiology with advances in single cell sequencing and our understanding of the circuitry of the brain.”
Bringing together these advancements in biology and technology, Zhang says she thinks neuroscience can progress toward precision medicine the way cancer already has. The company says it already has lead programs in ALS and Parkinson’s, and plans to tackle Alzheimer’s as well.
I asked Zhang if she received any opposition to her “AI-powered drug discovery” pitch while fundraising — especially from investors concerned about hype vs. reality.
“There’s a lot of AI companies out there, and that begs the question — is it hype or is it hope?” Zhang said. “The skepticism is warranted when someone comes along and says they can fix a problem that’s been historically challenging.”
The way Verge fought the opposition was to “generate compelling data that supports our claims,” Zhang said. “We could do that on both the technology and the life science side because we had good biological hypotheses.” In support of that, Zhang points to a paper Verge collaborated with USC on (published in Nature in 2018) that described how gene mutation caused toxicity to nerve cells, leading to ALS and some forms of dementia.
In Zhang’s view, the software-only companies — and the companies that aren’t building their own databases — are the risky bets. The AI companies rising to the top, she says, are ones that integrate drug development with the software side. After all, a successful drug is the big moneymaker.
“One of the reasons why machine learning and artificial intelligence hasn’t had more traction in drug discovery is because silos exist between the computational side and drug discovery side. It’s important to have an integrated team sitting side-by-side to develop a drug.”
That’s what they’re all about at Verge. The 14-person company has 10 PhDs in fields like machine learning, neuroscience, drug development, applied math, biophysics, and statistics. Joining the team’s board of directors is DFJ partner Emily Melton.
“The substantial increase in data volumes combined with the application of machine learning tools has the potential to transform drug discovery and development,” Melton said in a news release. “We were compelled by the high-caliber and multidisciplinary team at Verge Genomics and their vision to leverage the convergence of technological and neurobiological advances to discover new therapies for these complex diseases.”
Image: The team at San Francisco’s Verge Genomics. VERGE GENOMICS