BenchSci founders, clockwise from top left: Liran Belenzon, Elvis Wianda, David Chen and Tom Leung

F-Prime backs a niche AI soft­ware start­up hunt­ing lofty goals in $22M Se­ries B

For many of the AI com­pa­nies sprout­ing on the bio­phar­ma field, val­i­da­tion — of­ten mean­ing con­fir­ma­tion of whether the tar­gets and drugs they iden­ti­fied or gen­er­at­ed would ac­tu­al­ly work — won’t come in years, if at all. But for Bench­Sci, the drug hunt­ing field is their home turf.

To be sure, the Toron­to-based start­up is do­ing some­thing very dif­fer­ent from the rest of the pack. Rather than stak­ing claims about the re­sults of drug dis­cov­ery, it’s out to change the process by hun­ker­ing down on a spe­cif­ic prob­lem: help­ing sci­en­tists se­lect the right reagents to con­duct their pre­clin­i­cal ex­per­i­ments.

Hav­ing start­ed out with an an­ti­body se­lec­tion ser­vice 18 months ago, Bench­Sci is now ready to roll out a broad­er reagent se­lec­tion plat­form and ex­pand the clien­tele from aca­d­e­m­ic in­sti­tu­tions and Big Phar­ma to biotechs — thanks to a $22 mil­lion cash in­jec­tion.

In con­trast with the clin­i­cal or com­mer­cial realm, Bench­Sci found that its chal­lenge wasn’t to com­pete with ri­val ven­dors but to con­vince in­vestors that there’s a mar­ket, CEO Li­ran Be­len­zon told End­points News.

“There is no soft­ware com­pa­ny in pre­clin­i­cal,” he said, leav­ing sci­en­tists to work on soft­ware with in­ter­faces that “look like they’re from the 1990s.”

But the ex­pe­ri­ence of his co-founder and CSO Tom Le­ung, who saw first hand how an in­ap­pro­pri­ate an­ti­body could cost him rare pa­tient sam­ples and lead to month­long de­lays, and sub­se­quent chats with oth­er re­searchers con­vinced them there’s an op­por­tu­ni­ty here. Col­lat­ing da­ta from open ac­cess jour­nals and ink­ing deals with big name pub­lish­ers like Springer Na­ture, Wi­ley and JA­MA, Bench­Sci came up with a data­base of sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture that they then teach the com­put­er to read.

“So the sci­en­tist ba­si­cal­ly asks our sys­tem the ques­tion: Out of those 5,000 reagents or an­ti­bod­ies that are out there, which one will work on BR­CA1, in this tis­sue, in this spe­cif­ic cell line, in this mod­el, with this spec­i­fi­ca­tion,” Be­len­zon said, “and we re­al­ly nar­row down these 4 or 5,000 to 2 or 3 and then we say, hey, these are the an­ti­bod­ies most like­ly to work in your ex­per­i­ment, and here’s all the sci­en­tif­ic da­ta and the ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults that this spe­cif­ic reagent has gen­er­at­ed and sci­en­tists can ac­tu­al­ly see those re­sults and val­i­date it as well.”

That means con­dens­ing the whole process of se­lect­ing reagents — tra­di­tion­al­ly done by tri­al and er­ror — from 12 weeks to 30 sec­onds, ac­cord­ing to the com­pa­ny, re­duc­ing waste by 70% and sav­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in hard cost.

It’s not quite shav­ing years and tens of mil­lions off the drug dis­cov­ery process as oth­ers have promised (and many have doubt­ed). Yet Bench­Sci still cites some big num­bers: a $10.2 bil­lion per year op­por­tu­ni­ty for sav­ings on reagents, de­duced from the es­ti­mate that $28 bil­lion each year is wast­ed on ir­re­pro­ducible re­search, with reagents and ref­er­ence ma­te­ri­als ac­count­ing for 36.1%.

F-Prime Cap­i­tal, which led the Se­ries B, and oth­er in­vestors in­clud­ing North­leaf Cap­i­tal Part­ners, Gra­di­ent Ven­tures, In­ovia Cap­i­tal, Gold­en Ven­tures and Re­al Ven­tures would love to see them get there. But will they?

“They would be a per­fect ac­qui­si­tion tar­get for Gene­script, Qi­a­gen, Ther­mo Fish­er, or oth­er an­ti­body and reagent mak­er,” Alex Zha­voronkov, founder and CEO of AI drug dis­cov­ery start­up In­sil­i­co Med­i­cine, wrote to End­points. “With this mod­el they can quick­ly get to sub­stan­tial rev­enue pos­si­bly in tens of mil­lions but the mar­ket size is rather lim­it­ed and it will be dif­fi­cult to grow.”

As he pre­pares to dou­ble the size of his team to 140 to sup­port the growth in­to re­com­bi­nant pro­teins, RNAi, CRISPR, cell lines and more, Be­len­zon sees oth­er­wise.

“To­day in an age where you have AI com­pa­nies gen­er­at­ing more and more and more po­ten­tial­ly great tar­gets to study, there needs to be a com­pa­ny that helps to study those tar­gets faster and bet­ter and cheap­er,” he said. “That’s re­al­ly what we are fo­cus­ing on.”

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.