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.”

2023 Spot­light on the Fu­ture of Drug De­vel­op­ment for Small and Mid-Sized Biotechs

In the context of today’s global economic environment, there is an increasing need to work smarter, faster and leaner across all facets of the life sciences industry.  This is particularly true for small and mid-sized biotech companies, many of which are facing declining valuations and competing for increasingly limited funding to propel their science forward.  It is important to recognize that within this framework, many of these smaller companies already find themselves resource-challenged to design and manage clinical studies themselves because they don’t have large teams or in-house experts in navigating the various aspects of the drug development journey. This can be particularly challenging for the most complex and difficult to treat diseases where no previous pathway exists and patients are urgently awaiting breakthroughs.

Dipal Doshi, Entrada Therapeutics CEO

Ver­tex just found the next big ‘trans­for­ma­tive’ thing for the pipeline — at a biotech just down the street

Back in the summer of 2019, when I was covering Vertex’s executive chairman Jeff Leiden’s plans for the pipeline, I picked up on a distinct focus on myotonic dystrophy Type I, or DM1 — one of what Leiden called “two diseases (with DMD) we’re interested in and we continue to look for those assets.”

Today, Leiden’s successor at the helm of Vertex, CEO Reshma Kewalramani, is plunking down $250 million in cash to go the extra mile on DM1. The lion’s share of that is for the upfront, with a small reserve for equity in a deal that lines Vertex up with a neighbor in Seaport that has been rather quietly going at both of Vertex’s early disease targets with preclinical assets.

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Christian Itin, Autolus CEO (UKBIO19)

Au­to­lus tips its hand, bags $220M as CAR-T show­down with Gilead looms

The first batch of pivotal data on Autolus Therapeutics’ CAR-T is in, and execs are ready to plot a path to market.

With an overall remission rate of 70% at the interim analysis featuring 50 patients, the results set the stage for a BLA filing by the end of 2023, said CEO Christian Itin.

Perhaps more importantly — given that Autolus’ drug, obe-cel, is going after an indication that Gilead’s Tecartus is already approved for — the biotech highlighted “encouraging safety data” in the trial, with a low percentage of patients experiencing severe immune responses.

WIB22: Am­ber Salz­man had few op­tions when her son was di­ag­nosed with a rare ge­net­ic dis­ease. So she cre­at­ed a bet­ter one

This profile is part of Endpoints News’ 2022 special report about Women in Biopharma R&D. You can read the full report here.

Amber Salzman’s life changed on a cold, damp day in Paris over tiny plastic cups of lukewarm tea.

She was meeting with Patrick Aubourg, a French neurologist studying adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD, a rare genetic condition that causes rapid neurological decline in young boys. It’s a sinister disease that often leads to disability or death within just a few years. Salzman’s nephew was diagnosed at just 6 or 7 years old, and died at the age of 12.

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Ahead of ad­comm, FDA rais­es un­cer­tain­ties on ben­e­fit-risk pro­file of Cy­to­ki­net­ic­s' po­ten­tial heart drug

The FDA’s Cardiovascular and Renal Drugs Advisory Committee will meet next Tuesday to discuss whether Cytokinetics’ potential heart drug can safely reduce the risk of cardiovascular death and heart failure in patients with symptomatic chronic heart failure with reduced ejection fraction.

The drug, known as omecamtiv mecarbil and in development for more than 15 years, has seen mixed results, with a first Phase III readout from November 2020 hitting the primary endpoint of reducing the odds of hospitalization or other urgent care for heart failure by 8%. But it also missed a key secondary endpoint analysts had pegged as key to breaking into the market.

Ab­b­Vie slapped with age dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suit, fol­low­ing oth­er phar­mas

Add AbbVie to the list of pharma companies currently facing age discrimination allegations.

Pennsylvania resident Thomas Hesch filed suit against AbbVie on Wednesday, accusing the company of passing him over for promotions in favor of younger candidates.

Despite 30 years of pharma experience, “Hesch has consistently seen younger, less qualified employees promoted over him,” the complaint states.

Stephen Squinto, Gennao Bio chairman

Scoop: Stephen Squin­to’s Yale spin­out is rais­ing a Se­ries B for ge­net­ic med­i­cines

The nucleic acid therapeutics at Stephen Squinto’s Yale-originated biotech are en route to a $40 million R&D payday.

After a Series A of that size in the spring of 2021, Hopewell, NJ-based Gennao Bio is closing on a round of the same amount, Endpoints News has learned. A Series B is in the works, according to an investor’s post on LinkedIn and as confirmed by a spokesperson. An SEC filing on Thursday outlines $15 million in equity sold thus far in the round.

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Rami Elghandour, Arcellx CEO

Up­dat­ed: Gilead, Ar­cel­lx team up on an­ti-BC­MA CAR-T as biotech touts a 100% re­sponse rate at #ASH22

Gilead and Kite are plunking down big cash to get into the anti-BCMA CAR-T game.

The pair will shell out $225 million in cash upfront and $100 million in equity to Arcellx, Kite announced Friday morning, to develop the biotech’s lead CAR-T program together. Kite will handle commercialization and co-development with Arcellx, and profits in the US will be split 50-50.

Concurrent with the deal, Arcellx revealed its latest cut of data for the program known as CART-ddBCMA, ahead of a full presentation at this weekend’s ASH conference — a 100% response rate among patients getting the therapy. Investors jumped at the dual announcements, sending Arcellx shares $ACLX up more than 25% in Friday’s morning session.

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WIB22: Lead­ing NK cell re­searcher re­flects on roots in Iran, the UK and Texas

This profile is part of Endpoints News’ 2022 special report about Women in Biopharma R&D. You can read the full report here.

In a small but widely-cited 11-person study published in NEJM in 2020, seven patients saw signs of their cancer completely go away after getting a new therapy made from natural killer cells. The study was one of the earliest to provide clinical proof that the experimental treatment method had promise.

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