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.”

For­bion spot­lights late-stage plays, carves out new €250M growth fund

Having staked its rep on picking out a mix of biotech investment opportunities across the “build,” “enable,” “growth” continuum, Forbion is launching its first fund dedicated to late-stage opportunities.

Forbion Growth Opportunities Fund’s first close brought in €185 million ($208 million). Existing investors Pantheon, KfW Capital and the European Investment Fund came on board, joined by new backers Eli Lilly, Horizon Therapeutics, Belgian Growth Fund and New Waves Investments.

The home run count: The $100M+ mega-round boom in biotech in­spired a $6.7B feed­ing fren­zy — so far this year

Over the last 6 months there’s been a blizzard of money piling up drifts of the green stuff through the biotech landscape. And the forecast calls for more cash windfalls ahead.

Even as a global pandemic has killed more than half a million people, blighted economies and divided nations over the proper response, it’s also helped ignite an unprecedented burst of big-time investing. And not just in Covid-19 deals, as we’ve looked at before.

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Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer speaks at a meeting with President Donald Trump, members of the Coronavirus Task Force, and pharmaceutical executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

OWS shifts spot­light to drugs to fight Covid-19, hand­ing Re­gen­eron $450M to be­gin large scale man­u­fac­tur­ing in the US

The US government is on a spending spree. And after committing billions to vaccines defense operations are now doling out more of the big bucks through Operation Warp Speed to back a rapid flip of a drug into the market to stop Covid-19 from ravaging patients — possibly inside of 2 months.

The beneficiary this morning is Regeneron, the big biotech engaged in a frenzied race to develop an antibody cocktail called REGN-COV2 that just started a late-stage program to prove its worth in fighting the virus. BARDA and the Department of Defense are awarding Regeneron a $450 million contract to cover bulk delivery of the cocktail starting as early as late summer, with money added for fill/finish and storage activities.

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Atul Deshpande, Harbour BioMed chief strategy officer & head, US operations (Harbour BioMed)

An­oth­er biotech IPO set-up? Multi­na­tion­al biotech leaps from round to round, scoop­ing up cash at a blis­ter­ing pace

A short four months after announcing a $75 million haul in Series B+ fundraising, the multinational biotech Harbour BioMed pulled in another round of investments and eclipsed the nine-digit mark in the process.

Harbour completed its Series C financing, the company announced Thursday morning, raising $102.8 million and bringing its total investment sum to over $300 million since its founding in late 2016. The biotech plans to use the money to transition early-stage candidates from the discovery phase, fund candidates already in the clinic, and prep late-stage candidates for commercialization.

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Mer­ck ex­pands scope of Zymeworks an­ti­body al­liance, adding close to $900M in mile­stones

Nearly a decade after first partnering with Merck, Vancouver-based biotech Zymeworks has expanded its collaboration with the pharma giant once again.

Zymeworks re-upped with Merck in a new licensing agreement, granting the New Jersey pharma giant the right to develop up to 3 additional multispecific antibody candidates. In exchange, the biotech will receive an undisclosed upfront payment — Merck is always loath to discuss cash terms — and nearly $900 million in combined regulatory ($411 million) and commercial ($480 million) milestones.

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Ed Engleman (Stanford Blood Center)

Stan­ford star on­col­o­gy sci­en­tist Ed En­gle­man helped cre­ate the im­munother­a­py field. Now he wants to shake up neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion R&D

Over the last generation of drug R&D, Ed Engleman has been a standout scientist.

The Stanford professor co-founded Dendreon and provided the scientific insights needed to develop Provenge into a pioneering — though not particularly marketable — immunotherapy. He’s spurred a slate of startups, assisted by his well-connected perch as a co-founder of Vivo Capital, and took the dendritic cell story into its next chapter at a startup called Bolt.

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UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen shares spike as ex­ecs com­plete a de­layed pitch for their con­tro­ver­sial Alzheimer's drug — the next move be­longs to the FDA

Biogen is stepping out onto the high wire today, reporting that the team working on the controversial Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab has now completed their submission to the FDA. And they want the agency to bless it with a priority review that would cut the agency’s decision-making time to a mere 6 months.

The news drove a 10% spike in Biogen’s stock $BIIB ahead of the bell.

Part of that spike can be attributed to a relief rally. Biogen execs rattled backers and a host of analysts earlier in the year when they unexpectedly delayed their filing to the third quarter. That delay provoked all manner of speculation after CEO Michel Vounatsos and R&D chief Al Sandrock failed to persuade influential observers that the pandemic and other factors had slowed the timeline for filing. Actually making the pitch at least satisfies skeptics that the FDA was not likely pushing back as Biogen was pushing in. From the start, Biogen execs claimed that they were doing everything in cooperation with the FDA, saying that regulators had signaled their interest in reviewing the submission.

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Nello Mainolfi (Kymera via YouTube)

Out to re­vive R&D, a resur­gent Sanofi pays $150M cash to part­ner up with a pi­o­neer­ing pro­tein degra­da­tion play­er

Frank Nestle was appointed Sanofi’s global head of immunology and inflammation research therapeutic area just days before dupilumab, the blockbuster-to-be IL-4 antibody, would be accepted for priority review. After four years of consolidating immunology expertise from multiple corners of the Sanofi family and recruiting new talents to build the discovery engine, he’s set eyes on a Phase I-ready program that he believes can grow into a Dupixent-sized franchise.

Covid-19 roundup: CDC de­bat­ing who should get first avail­able vac­cines; EU in Gilead talks af­ter US gob­bled first remde­sivir dos­es

The federal government has now spent billions of dollars accelerating the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, and yet they’ve remained hush-hush on who, precisely, would actually get inoculated once the first doses are approved and available. Internally, though, they have been debating it.

The CDC and an advisory committee of outside health experts have been working since April to devise a ranking system that would determine who receives a vaccine and when, The New York Times reported. The question of who is first in line for inoculation is important because no matter how many doses developers can make or how quickly they can make them, doses will still come out in batches; 300 million inoculations will not appear overnight.

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