Big Pharma companies join hands with Amazon on new Israel-based AI incubator
What do Merck, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Teva have in common with Amazon? As of Wednesday, they’re all joining forces with the Israel Biotech Fund to launch a new incubator for startups walking the line between AI and drug development — and they’re gearing up to make some big investments.
AION Labs plans to seed between four and six new biotech companies per year, starting in early 2022, CEO Mati Gill told Endpoints News. The funds should support two to four years of runway for each startup.
“We have competitors that are working together…because the challenge of harnessing AI and computational capabilities for pharma is so immense and it really hasn’t been tapped into,” Gill said in an interview.
AION’s roots trace back to Teva where Gill was most recently a senior executive in charge of outreach. The pharma company was initially looking to strengthen its ties with Israel’s robust tech community when it came up with the idea for the collaboration. Then in December, they won more than $9 million in an Israeli government tender to get started.
How will it work? AION is copying its model from BioMed X, a partner and biomedical incubator based in Heidelberg, Germany. Each year, AION’s pharma partners will select at least four of the biggest challenges faced by drugmakers in the AI space and issue calls for solutions. Five to 10 finalists will be offered a chance to spend a week in Israel at a bootcamp, where they’ll develop their proposals. In the end, the winners will be offered seed funding to form a company around their ideas.
Gill expects to announce the first round of applications later this month.
“Data, analytics and AI are already starting to transform the way we discover and develop new medicines and I believe we are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of its promise,” Jim Weatherall, AstraZeneca’s VP of data science and AI R&D, said in a statement.
This isn’t the first instance of Big Pharma dipping its toes in the AI space. Back in May, Bristol Myers Squibb expanded a Celgene-era deal with AI outfit Exscientia. And before that, back in February, AstraZeneca said it added the first target generated by AI to its portfolio, coming out of a collaboration with the London-based company, BenevolentAI.
Several other biotechs have cropped up with big promises to speed up the drug development process using machine learning and other AI-focused models, including Insilico, Deep Genomics, Recursion, XtalPi and others.