Jen Nwankwo, 1910 Genetics CEO

Ex­clu­sive: Mi­crosoft, Sam Alt­man back a new AI biotech up­start

Most ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence biotechs start with a com­put­er sci­en­tist or two and an al­go­rithm. Jen Nwankwo start­ed from the oth­er side of the spec­trum.

She had just got­ten her PhD from Tufts in 2016, a dyed-in-the-wool phar­ma­col­o­gist who had re­ceived an HH­MI fel­low­ship and worked on sick­le cell drug dis­cov­ery at Boston Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal, and was work­ing at Bain Cap­i­tal when she start­ed read­ing up on ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. She’d pour over every news ar­ti­cle she saw on self-dri­ving cars or im­age recog­ni­tion, won­der­ing with each word how she could ap­ply the same tech­nol­o­gy to the prob­lems that plagued her as a drug de­vel­op­er.

“I don’t come from the tech­nol­o­gy world, I am not my­self an AI per­son,” Nwankwo told End­points News. “I’m what you call an AI en­thu­si­ast.”

Sam Alt­man

The lack of tech ex­pe­ri­ence, though, hasn’t cost her with tech in­vestors. Af­ter build­ing a plat­form and launch­ing a com­pa­ny, 1910 Ge­net­ics, around those ear­ly mus­ings, she has con­vinced Mi­crosoft’s VC firm M12 and the deep tech VC Play­ground Glob­al to back a $22 mil­lion Se­ries A, with the goal of turn­ing the plat­form she and a col­league built in­to a long list of drug de­vel­op­ment pro­grams.

Though mod­est by biotech stan­dards, the in­vest­ment rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant step for a pair of promi­nent Sil­i­con Val­ley firms that have yet to wade deeply in­to the life sci­ences. 1910 Ge­net­ics al­so won a $4.1 mil­lion seed round led by a per­son­al in­vest­ment from Y Com­bi­na­tor and Ope­nAI’s Sam Alt­man.

Jo­ry Bell

“We share the be­lief that life sci­ences is at an in­flec­tion point and that it’s a lit­tle bit be­hind on its us­es of (ma­chine learn­ing) and au­toma­tion,” Play­ground Glob­al gen­er­al part­ner Jo­ry Bell told End­points.

Nwankwo pre­sent­ed a con­vinc­ing case to lead the push to catch the field up, he said: “Jen is an ex­treme­ly com­pelling founder. She had ex­pe­ri­ence in shep­herd­ing drugs to mar­ket, busi­ness de­vel­op­ment in that con­text, and had put to­geth­er an in­cred­i­ble team on the com­pu­ta­tion­al side.”

1910’s pitch is fa­mil­iar to any­one who’s been fol­low­ing the field for the last decade: New ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tools can short­en some of the most dif­fi­cult and la­bor-in­ten­sive process­es in drug de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing find­ing a good mol­e­cule to hit your tar­get and then tweak­ing that mol­e­cule in po­ten­tial­ly hun­dreds or thou­sands of dif­fer­ent ways too.

They dif­fer, though, in a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ways. First, with­out delv­ing in­to specifics, Nwankwo said the com­pa­ny’s ap­proach for screen­ing mol­e­cules doesn’t use the ma­chine learn­ing tool that has dri­ven the AI rev­o­lu­tion over the last decade and sits at the heart of AI drug dis­cov­ery com­pa­nies such as Atom­wise and Ex­sci­en­tia.

Sec­ond, in­stead of help­ing with one ma­jor step of the process, Nwankwo and lead AI sci­en­tist Bran­don Moore have de­vel­oped a sys­tem of se­quen­tial and in­ter­lock­ing al­go­rithms for dif­fer­ent parts of the drug dis­cov­ery process. SUEDE screens through 14 bil­lion mol­e­cules that can hit a tar­get. BAGEL us­es neur­al net­works to gen­er­ate tweaks that make the mol­e­cule more drug-like. And CAN­DID us­es neur­al net­works to pre­dict how it would per­form on mul­ti­ple met­rics, such as sol­u­bil­i­ty.

Like a grow­ing num­ber of AI com­pa­nies, they al­so have a wet lab to quick­ly test out their best can­di­dates. Nwankwo said they are al­so work­ing on a plat­form, called ROS­ALYND, to ap­ply AI tech­niques to pro­tein-based drugs. They’re look­ing to find bet­ter ways of pre­dict­ing a pro­tein’s func­tion from its se­quence.

“Can AI help us there?” she said. “And if we’re go­ing to fail, can we fail faster?”

Nei­ther Nwankwo nor Play­ground’s Bell were shy about the com­pa­ny’s am­bi­tion. Al­though the fi­nanc­ing is small and the com­pa­ny is on­ly at 14 full-time em­ploy­ees, they’ll look to scale to 30 em­ploy­ees quick­ly. They al­ready have pro­grams in oph­thal­mol­o­gy, in­fec­tious dis­ease, neu­rol­o­gy, im­munol­o­gy and ag­ing.

Nwankwo said they have un­named part­ner­ships with large phar­ma com­pa­nies. Even­tu­al­ly, they’ll have an in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal pipeline, sim­i­lar to a hand­ful of oth­er ma­jor com­pu­ta­tion­al com­pa­nies.

“If you look at what Bruce Booth and the team did with Nim­bus, it’s sort of sim­i­lar from a busi­ness mod­el per­spec­tive,” Nwankwo said. “We’re now com­ing to a point where we want to pick which ar­eas we ac­tu­al­ly want to stick our neck out on and take those to IND. And you can ex­pect us to come out this year and say Area A, Area B is where 1910 will fo­cus.”

Cor­rec­tion: The ar­ti­cle has been up­dat­ed to clar­i­fy that 1910’s seed round was led by a per­son­al in­vest­ment from Sam Alt­man, not his firm, Ope­nAI. 

How one start­up fore­told the neu­ro­science re­nais­sance af­ter '50 years of shit­show'

In the past couple of years, something curious has happened: Pharma and VC dollars started gushing into neuroscience research.

Biogen’s controversial new Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm has been approved on the basis of removing amyloid plaque from the brain, but the new neuro-focused pharma and biotechs have much loftier aims. Significantly curbing or even curing the most notorious disorders would prove the Holy Grail for a complex system that has tied the world’s best drug developers in knots for decades.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Bob Bradway, Amgen CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Am­gen bel­lies back up to the M&A ta­ble for an­oth­er biotech buy­out, this time with a $2.5B deal for an an­ti­body play­er fo­cused on PS­MA

Five months after Amgen CEO Bob Bradway stepped up to the M&A table and acquired Five Prime for $1.9 billion, following up with the smaller Rodeo acquisition, he’s gone back in for another biotech buyout.

This time around, Amgen is paying $900 million cash while committing up to $1.6 billion in milestones to bag the privately held Teneobio, an antibody drug developer that has expertise in developing new bispecifics and multispecifics. In addition, Amgen cited Teneobio’s “T-cell engager platform, which expands on Amgen’s existing leadership position in bispecific T-cell engagers by providing a differentiated, but complementary, approach to Amgen’s current BiTE platform.”

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 112,900+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Ryan Watts, Denali CEO

De­nali slips as a snap­shot of ear­ly da­ta rais­es some trou­bling ques­tions on its pi­o­neer­ing blood-brain bar­ri­er neu­ro work

Denali Therapeutics had drummed up considerable hype for their blood-brain barrier technology since launching over six years ago, hype that’s only intensified in the last 14 months following the publications of a pair of papers last spring and proof of concept data earlier this year. On Sunday, the South San Francisco-based biotech gave the biopharma world the next look at in-human data for its lead candidate in Hunter syndrome.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 112,900+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Why is On­col­o­gy Drug De­vel­op­ment Re­search Late to the Dig­i­tal Bio­mark­ers Game?

During the recent Annual ASCO Meeting, thousands of cancer researchers and clinicians from across the globe joined together virtually to present and discuss the latest findings and breakthroughs in cancer research and care. There were more than 5000+ scientific abstracts presented during this event, yet only a handful involved the use of motion-tracking wearables to collect digital measures relating to activity, sleep, mobility, functional status, and/or quality of life. Although these results were a bit disappointing, they should come as no surprise to those of us in the wearable technology field.

Art Levinson (Calico)

Google-backed Cal­i­co dou­bles down on an­ti-ag­ing R&D pact with Ab­b­Vie as part­ners ante up $1B, start to de­tail drug tar­gets

Seven years after striking up a major R&D alliance, AbbVie and Google-backed anti-aging specialist Calico are doubling down on their work with a joint, $1 billion commitment to continuing their work together. And they’re also beginning to offer some details on where this project is taking them in the clinic.

According to their statement, each of the two players is putting up $500 million more to keep the labs humming.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 112,900+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Busi­ness­es and schools can man­date the use of Covid-19 vac­cines un­der EUAs, DOJ says

As public and private companies stare down the reality of the Delta variant, many are now requiring that their employees or students be vaccinated against Covid-19 prior to attending school or to returning or starting a new job. Claims that such mandates are illegal or cannot be used for vaccines under emergency use authorizations have now been dismissed.

Setting the record straight, the Department of Justice on Monday called the mandates legal in a new memo, even when used for people with vaccines that remain subject to EUAs.

Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP Images)

BioN­Tech is spear­head­ing an mR­NA vac­cine de­vel­op­ment pro­gram for malar­ia, with a tech trans­fer planned for Africa

Flush with the success of its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, BioNTech is now gearing up for one of the biggest challenges in vaccine development — which comes without potential profit.

The German mRNA pioneer says it plans to work on a jab for malaria, then transfer the tech to the African continent, where it will work with partners on developing the manufacturing ops needed to make this and other vaccines.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 112,900+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

No­var­tis reshuf­fles its wild cards; Tough sell for Bio­gen? Googling pro­teins; Ken Fra­zier's new gig; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

If you enjoy the People section in this report, you may also want to check out Peer Review, my colleagues Alex Hoffman and Kathy Wong’s comprehensive compilation of comings and goings in biopharma.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 112,900+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Andrea Pfeifer, AC Immune CEO (AC Immune)

Look­ing to repli­cate Covid-19 suc­cess in neu­ro, BioN­Tech back­ers bet on AC Im­mune and its new­ly-ac­quired Parkin­son's vac­cine

The German billionaires behind BioNTech have found a new vaccine project to back.

Through their family office Athos Service, twin brothers Thomas and Andreas Strüngmann are leading a $25 million private placement into Switzerland’s AC Immune — which concurrently announced that it’s shelling out $58.7 million worth of stock to acquire Affiris’ portfolio of therapies targeting alpha-synuclein, including a vaccine candidate, for Parkinson’s disease.