Atomwise co-founders Abe Heifets and Izhar Wallach (photo courtesy Atomwise)

Plot­ting to be the Bridge­Bio of AI, Atom­wise lands $123 mil­lion Se­ries B for hype-heavy plat­form

The PR-friend­ly, well-part­nered AI biotech that’s pro­voked stern skep­ti­cism in some sci­en­tif­ic cor­ners is get­ting a boat­load of new cash.

Atom­wise has an­nounced a $123 mil­lion Se­ries B round led by San­abil In­vest­ments — a sub­sidiary of the Sau­di roy­al fund — and B Cap­i­tal Group and joined by DCVC and Y Com­bi­na­tor, among oth­ers. The new round is near­ly triple what Atom­wise had raised pri­or and will go to­wards both scal­ing their mol­e­cule-hunt­ing soft­ware and build­ing the grow­ing net­work of spin­outs they’re launch­ing to de­vel­op some of the mol­e­cules that soft­ware has turned up.

The goal ul­ti­mate­ly, said CEO Abe Heifets, is to build a port­fo­lio of small­er biotechs be­neath theirs — a kind of Bridge­Bio for AI.

“We want to grow in scale,” Heifets told End­points News. “The tech­nol­o­gy is small mol­e­cule — that’s a very broad um­brel­la so there’s in­creas­ing­ly an in­ter­est in a port­fo­lio ap­proach”

The round could be a le­git­i­mat­ing one for Atom­wise, a com­pa­ny that over the last few years has found it­self at the cen­ter of a de­bate be­tween en­gi­neers who promised that ma­chine learn­ing and AI net­works could re­make drug de­vel­op­ment and sci­en­tists who saw a lot of buzz but lit­tle sub­stance. Since its days at Y Com­bi­na­tor, the com­pa­ny has promised to use an AI con­vo­lu­tion­al net­work to rapid­ly screen bil­lions of mol­e­cules for their abil­i­ty to hit a tar­get or bind to a pro­tein, and in do­ing so speed from “years to days” the process of se­lect­ing drug can­di­dates. In do­ing so, they said, they could cut short the ar­du­ous and ex­pen­sive drug de­vel­op­ment path.

The prob­lem, crit­ics such as sci­ence blog­ger and med­i­c­i­nal chemist Derek Lowe ar­gued, is that it just doesn’t take that long to screen mol­e­cules. It’s a bump in the drug dis­cov­ery moun­tain.

“You can do a mil­lion in six weeks. The whole com­pound screen­ing step is just an­oth­er ear­ly thing in pre­clin­i­cal space,” Lowe wrote in one piece that al­so not­ed Atom­wise’s “ten­den­cy to­ward over­state­ment.”

“I’ve nev­er seen a suc­cess­ful project in which it was a rate-lim­it­ing step. But ‘shave a few weeks off some­thing at the very be­gin­ning’ isn’t as com­pelling an of­fer, is it?” he said.

Though just one of many com­pa­nies now of­fer­ing rapid, AI-en­abled screen­ing, Atom­wise might be the most pro­lif­ic, claim­ing “over 750 re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions ad­dress­ing over 600 dis­ease tar­gets” and part­ner­ships with ma­jor phar­ma com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Eli Lil­ly, Mer­ck, Ko­rea’s Han­soh Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, Bay­er and Bridge­Bio.

Yet it has ad­ver­tised those big-name part­ner­ships with par­tic­u­lar fan­fare. Rather than cal­cu­late the over­all po­ten­tial deal val­ue by up­front fees and mile­stones, as most biotechs do, they have of­ten list­ed val­ues that in­clude roy­al­ty es­ti­mates “based on his­tor­i­cal av­er­age rev­enues for small mol­e­cule drugs … with suc­cess in all projects” — in an in­dus­try where suc­cess is fleet­ing­ly rare. That’s al­lowed the com­pa­ny to ad­ver­tise that “Atom­wise has signed more than $5.5 bil­lion in to­tal deal val­ue with cor­po­rate part­ners to date” with­out dis­clos­ing any in­di­vid­ual pay­ments.

Heifets says that their deal re­leas­es are in line with how oth­er biotechs talk about their deals and what their part­ners are will­ing to dis­close. He al­so says Atom­wise pro­vides ben­e­fits be­yond that ini­tial screen­ing step.

“If you think of AI as on­ly be­ing ap­plied for high through­put screen­ing, then I agree with Derek,” he said. “That’s a be­gin­ning part and that’s pret­ty quick.”

Heifets said that Atom­wise al­so pro­vides ser­vices for lead op­ti­miza­tion, a longer and more dif­fi­cult step. And he said that they’ve shown the soft­ware can not on­ly find mol­e­cules faster but al­so find mol­e­cules for tar­gets that ma­jor com­pa­nies have spent years and mil­lions of dol­lars fail­ing to hit.

Most no­tably, Atom­wise launched X-37 last year in part around the dis­cov­ery of mol­e­cules that can bind to the PIM3 path­way with­out harm­ing healthy tis­sue, which Heifets said Roche, No­var­tis and As­traZeneca had tried and failed to do. The com­pa­ny raised $14.5 mil­lion in Se­ries A fund­ing. They al­so qui­et­ly launched Theia Bio­sciences around mol­e­cules that can hit the HTRA1 path­way and might be used to treat age-re­lat­ed mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion.

Over the next few years, Heifets said, they plan to launch more biotech sub­sidiaries, hope­ful­ly even­tu­al­ly putting mul­ti­ple drugs in the clin­ic. If the mar­kets keep their his­toric pace, he said, an IPO could al­so be in their for­tunes.

That would like­ly mean a hefty S-1 and an­oth­er round of ar­gu­ments over the role of AI in biotech, and what’s hype and what’s re­al­i­ty.

“I think that will de­pend on what the mar­kets are do­ing,” Heifets said. “There have been a num­ber of very suc­cess­ful IPOs re­cent­ly in the biotech sec­tor, so it’s a very in­ter­est­ing time.”

Biotech in­vestors and CEOs see two paths to growth, but are they equal­ly vi­able?

The dynamic in the biotech market has been highly volatile in the last few years, from the high peaks immediately after the COVID vaccine in 2021, to the lowest downturns of the last 20 years in 2022. This uncertainty makes calling the exact timing of the market’s turn something of a fool’s errand, according to Dr. Chen Yu, Founder and Managing Partner of TCG Crossover (TCG X). He speaks with RBC’s Noël Brown, Head of US Biotechnology Investment Banking, about the market’s road ahead and two possible paths for growth.

Vlad Coric, Biohaven CEO

Vlad Coric charts course for new Bio­haven with neu­ro­science push and Big Phar­ma vets on board

What’s Biohaven without its CGRP portfolio? That’s what CEO Vlad Coric is tasked with deciding as he maps out the new Biohaven post-Pfizer takeover.

Pfizer officially scooped up Biohaven’s CGRP assets on Monday, including blockbuster migraine drug Nurtec and the investigational zavegepant, for $11.6 billion. As a result, Coric spun the broader pipeline into an independent company on Tuesday — with the same R&D team behind Nurtec but about 1,000 fewer staffers and a renewed focus on neuroscience and rare disease.

Casey McPherson shows his daughters Rose (left) and Weston around Everlum Bio, a lab that he co-founded to spark a treatment for Rose and others with ultra-rare conditions. (Ilana Panich-Linsman)

Fa­ther starts lab af­ter in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty is­sues stymie rare dis­ease drug de­vel­op­ment

Under bright lab lights, Casey McPherson holds his 6-year-old daughter, Rose. His free hand directs Rose’s gaze toward a computer screen with potential clues in treating her one-of-a kind genetic condition.

Gray specks on the screen show her cells that scientists reprogrammed with the goal of zeroing in on a custom medicine. McPherson co-founded the lab, Everlum Bio, to spark a treatment for Rose — and others like her. A regarded singer-songwriter, McPherson never imagined going into drug development.

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In AstraZeneca's latest campaign, wild eosinophils called Phils personify the acting up often seen in uncontrolled asthma

As­traZeneca de­buts an­noy­ing pur­ple ‘Phil’ crea­tures, per­son­i­fied asth­ma eosinophils ‘be­hav­ing bad­ly’

There are some odd-looking purple creatures lurking around the halls of AstraZenca lately. The “Phil” character cutouts are purple, personified eosinophils with big buggy eyes and wide mouths, and they’re a part of AZ’s newest awareness effort to help people understand eosinophilic asthma.

The “Asthma Behaving Badly” characters aren’t only on the walls at AZ to show the new campaign to employees, however. The “Phils” are also showing up online on the campaign website, and in digital and social ads and posts on Facebook and Instagram.

Christophe Bourdon, Leo Pharma CEO

Leo Phar­ma looks 'be­yond the skin' in atopic der­mati­tis aware­ness cam­paign

As Leo Pharma aims to take on heavyweight champ Dupixent in atopic dermatitis, the company is launching “AD Days Around the World,” an awareness campaign documenting real patient stories across Europe.

The project, unveiled on Monday, spotlights four patients: Marjolaine, Laura, Julia and África from France, Italy, Germany and Spain, respectively, in short video clips on the challenges of living with AD, the most common form of eczema.

Mar­ket­ingRx roundup: No­var­tis re­cruits NFL coach for Leqvio cam­paign; Pfiz­er pro­motes ‘Sci­ence’ merch on so­cial me­dia

Novartis is turning to a winning coach to talk about Leqvio and the struggles of high cholesterol — including his own. Bruce Arians, the retired NFL head coach of the Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is partnering with the pharma for its “Coaching Cholesterol” digital, social and public relations effort.

In the campaign, Arians talks about the potential for “great comebacks” in football and heart health. Once nicknamed a “quarterback whisperer,” he is now retired from fulltime coaching (although still a front-office consultant for Tampa Bay), and did a round of media interviews for Novartis, including one with People and Forbes.

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Marc Dunoyer, Alexion CEO (AstraZeneca via YouTube)

Up­dat­ed: As­traZeneca nabs a small rare dis­ease gene ther­a­py play­er for 667% pre­mi­um

AstraZeneca is kicking off the fourth quarter with a little M&A Monday for a gene editing player recently overcoming a second clinical hold to its only program in human studies.

The Big Pharma and its subsidiary Alexion are buying out little LogicBio for $2.07 per share. That’s good for a massive 667% premium over its Friday closing price, when it headed into the weekend at 27 cents and just weeks after Nasdaq said LogicBio would have to delist, which has been put on hold as the biotech requests a hearing. It’s one of two biotech deals to commence October, alongside the news of Incyte buying a vitiligo-focused biotech.

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Dave Marek, Myovant CEO

My­ovant board balks as ma­jor­i­ty own­er Sum­it­o­mo swoops in with a $2.5B deal to buy them out

Three years after Sumitomo scooped up Roivant’s 46% stake in the publicly traded Myovant $MYOV as part of a 5-company, $3 billion deal, they’re coming back for the whole thing.

But these other investors at Myovant want more than what the Japanese pharma company is currently offering to pay at this stage.

Sumitomo is bidding $22.75 a share for the outstanding stock, which now represents 48% of the company after Sumitomo bumped its ownership since the original deal with Roivant. Myovant, however, created a special committee on the board, and they’re shaking their heads over the offer.

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Ying Huang, Legend CEO

Lentivi­ral vec­tor ramp-up: J&J and Leg­end to in­vest $500M in New Jer­sey man­u­fac­tur­ing to sup­port Carvyk­ti

In response to a question on manufacturing scale at Legend Biotech’s R&D day yesterday, the company’s top exec said its partnership with Johnson & Johnson will be doubling its investment in its New Jersey manufacturing center and will be investing a total of $500 million.

With an eye on their BCMA-directed CAR-T therapy Carvykti (cilta-cel), approved in February as a fifth-line treatment for multiple myeloma, Legend CEO Ying Huang said that the ramp-up in production and the decision to manufacture its own lentiviral vectors — currently in shortage worldwide — means they won’t have to deal with that shortage.