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.”

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

Covid-19 vac­cine boost­ers earn big thumbs up, but Mod­er­na draws ire over world sup­ply; What's next for Mer­ck’s Covid pill?; The C-suite view on biotech; 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.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, Endpoints News set a goal to go broader and deeper. We are still working towards that, and are excited to share that Beth Snyder Bulik will be joining us on Monday to cover all things pharma marketing. You can sign up for her weekly Endpoints MarketingRx newsletter in your reader profile.

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No­var­tis de­vel­op­ment chief John Tsai: 'We go deep in the new plat­form­s'

During our recent European Biopharma Summit, I talked with Novartis development chief John Tsai about his experiences over the 3-plus years he’s been at the pharma giant. You can read the transcript below or listen to the exchange in the link above.

John Carroll: I followed your career for quite some time. You’ve had more than 20 years in big pharma R&D and you’ve obviously seen quite a lot. I really was curious about what it was like for you three and a half years ago when you took over as R&D chief at Novartis. Obviously a big move, a lot of changes. You went to work for the former R&D chief of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, who had his own track record there. So what was the biggest adjustment when you went into this position?

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Amit Etkin, Alto Neuroscience CEO (Alto via Vimeo)

A star Stan­ford pro­fes­sor leaves his lab for a start­up out to re­make psy­chi­a­try

About five years ago, Amit Etkin had a breakthrough.

The Stanford neurologist, a soft-spoken demi-prodigy who became a professor while still a resident, had been obsessed for a decade with how to better define psychiatric disorders. Drugs for depression or bipolar disorder didn’t work for many patients with the conditions, and he suspected the reason was how traditional diagnoses didn’t actually get at the heart of what was going on in a patient’s brain.

Roche's Tecen­triq cross­es the fin­ish line first in ad­ju­vant lung can­cer, po­ten­tial­ly kick­ing off gold rush

While falling behind the biggest PD-(L)1 drugs in terms of sales, Roche has looked to carve out a space for its Tecentriq with a growing expertise in lung cancer. The drug will now take an early lead in the sought-after adjuvant setting — but competitors are on the way.

The FDA on Friday approved Tecentriq as an adjuvant therapy for patients with Stage II-IIIA non small cell lung cancer with PD-(L)1 scores greater than or equal to 1, making it the first drug of its kind approved in an early setting that covers around 40% of all NSCLC patients.

Susan Galbraith, Executive VP, Oncology R&D, AstraZeneca

As­traZeneca on­col­o­gy R&D chief Su­san Gal­braith: 'Y­ou're go­ing to need or­thog­o­nal com­bi­na­tion­s'

 

Earlier in the week we broadcast our 4th annual European Biopharma Summit with a great lineup of top execs. One of the one-on-one conversations I set up was with Susan Galbraith, the oncology research chief at AstraZeneca. In a wide-ranging discussion, Galbraith reviewed the cancer drug pipeline and key trends influencing development work at the pharma giant. You can watch the video, above, or stick with the script below. — JC

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Yao-Chang Xu, Abbisko Therapeutics founder and CEO

Qim­ing-backed Ab­bisko makes $200M+ Hong Kong de­but, as a SPAC and Agenus spin­out al­so price on Nas­daq

Three new entities priced their public debuts late Thursday and early Friday, including a SPAC, a traditional Nasdaq IPO and a Chinese biotech joining the Hong Kong Index.

Shanghai-based Abbisko Therapeutics raised the most money of the triumvirate, garnering $226 million in its Hong Kong debut and pricing at HK$12.46, or roughly $1.60 in US dollars. The blank check company followed up with a $150 million raise, while MiNK Therapeutics priced on Nasdaq at $12 per share and a $40 million raise.

Paul Grayson, Tentarix CEO (Versant)

Phar­ma vet­er­ans re­group with $50M and a plan to dis­cov­er new mul­ti-specifics

While a horde of drugmakers develops bispecific antibodies to more directly target tumor cells — there were about 100 programs in or nearing clinical trials back in May — a new company is emerging to go one step further.

On Thursday, Tentarix Biotherapeutics unveiled a $50 million Series A round to support its next-gen multi-specifics platform. While the field has largely focused on bispecifics, which engage two targets, Tentarix believes its multifunctional programs have the potential to be even more specific, since more conditions must be met for potent activity to occur.

Tillman Gerngross, Adagio CEO

Q&A: Till­man Gern­gross ex­plains why his Covid mAb will have an edge over an al­ready crowd­ed field

If anyone knows about monoclonal antibodies, it’s serial entrepreneur, Adimab CEO, and Dartmouth professor of bioengineering Tillman Gerngross.

Even the name of Gerngross’ new antibody startup Adagio Therapeutics is meant to reflect his vision behind the development of his Covid-19 mAb: slowly, he said, explaining that “everyone else, whether it’s Regeneron, Lilly, or AstraZeneca, Vir, they all valued speed over everything.”

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