Nicolas Tilmans, Anagenex CEO

Seek­ing to 'close the loop' in drug dis­cov­ery with ma­chine learn­ing, Catalio-backed biotech emerges from se­mi-stealth

Two years af­ter se­cur­ing seed fund­ing and re­main­ing in a state of “se­mi-stealth,” a San Fran­cis­co biotech keen on com­bin­ing evo­lu­tion and small mol­e­cule dis­cov­ery re­cent­ly bagged a VC round that will let it do just that.

Known as An­a­genex, the com­pa­ny an­nounced Wednes­day that it raised a $30 mil­lion Se­ries A round, se­cur­ing the at­ten­tion of Catalio Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment as lead in­vestor. A few oth­er in­vestors tagged along, such as Lux Cap­i­tal and Khosla Ven­tures.

Lux Cap­i­tal had led An­a­genex’s seed round back in 2020, which net­ted the biotech $7.2 mil­lion. Ac­cord­ing to An­a­genex CEO Nico­las Tilmans, the round should last the biotech at least two years.

An­a­genex said in a state­ment that it plans to use its Se­ries A funds to “fur­ther ex­pand its nov­el da­ta gen­er­at­ing plat­form and build a ro­bust pipeline of pro­grams ad­dress­ing his­tor­i­cal­ly chal­leng­ing un­met med­ical needs.”

Tilmans start­ed off by telling End­points News that in his mind, the force of evo­lu­tion is one of the strongest forces in na­ture.

“And if you can cre­ate a sys­tem that har­ness­es evo­lu­tion, you will al­most al­ways do bet­ter in bi­ol­o­gy than oth­er­wise,” added the CEO, who has a PhD in bio­chem­istry out of Stan­ford.

The biotech got off the ground in 2018, af­ter Tilmans said he saw this evo­lu­tion­ary con­cept in both an­ti­body and pro­tein-based drug dis­cov­ery. So he won­dered, why not ap­ply this in small mol­e­cules? From his per­spec­tive, the im­ped­i­ment had been a lack of ways to “close the loop.”

The CEO com­pared it to sub­ject­ing finch­es to evo­lu­tion­ary pres­sures and see­ing which finch­es make it through. As they re­pop­u­late over time, one could cre­ate the per­fect finch — a sim­i­lar the­o­ry posit­ed by Charles Dar­win with his finch­es.

Ac­cord­ing to An­a­genex, the plat­form now gives way to a closed loop that can be re­fined again and again, mak­ing for a di­rect­ed evo­lu­tion process, in Tilmans’ words.

Af­ter tak­ing an ini­tial li­brary of po­ten­tial com­pounds (any­where from a cou­ple hun­dred mil­lion to more than a bil­lion) and screen­ing them to see if they bind to a cer­tain tar­get, re­sults are fed in­to the biotech’s ma­chine learn­ing plat­form. Then, that plat­form cre­ates a nar­rowed li­brary of 1 mil­lion of more “promis­ing” com­pounds based on the re­sults of the pre­vi­ous screen. The re­fined com­pound li­brary gets screened again as re­sults are re-fed in­to the ma­chine learn­ing plat­form, and it spits out an­oth­er nar­row com­pound li­brary to be fur­ther re­fined.

The com­pa­ny will be­gin with syn­thet­ic lethal on­col­o­gy, with An­a­genex al­so tak­ing a look at cer­tain in­flam­ma­tion and car­dio­vas­cu­lar tar­gets. So far, there are three pro­grams in play: two in syn­thet­ic lethal on­col­o­gy and one in car­dio­vas­cu­lar.

Tilmans said he can see small mol­e­cules branch out in­to mul­ti­ple in­di­ca­tions akin to Keytru­da or Hu­mi­ra, which are both an­ti­bod­ies — and that is their goal.

“We don’t have the lux­u­ry of Pfiz­er. So yes, any­thing we pick, we’d like to be able to have it go in­to mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent in­di­ca­tions. But the most im­por­tant thing for us is to take a prob­lem that we’re pret­ty sure we’re gonna win. And we’re pret­ty sure that the mar­ket at the oth­er end is go­ing to be big enough,” the CEO added.

In terms of part­ner­ships, Tilmans said that there are a few on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tions, but he claims his ap­proach to part­ner­ships is marked­ly dif­fer­ent from oth­er biotech CEOs.

I want to em­pha­size that we are a ther­a­peu­tics com­pa­ny, and we want to be solv­ing prob­lems and then bring­ing the fruits of our la­bor to the pa­tient, our­selves. So that’s a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent than some of the oth­er com­pa­nies in the space. One of the ways I like to think about it is sort of like Wall Street newslet­ters. If you’re telling me what things to in­vest in, maybe you should in­vest in them, and put your mon­ey where your mouth is. And that’s the way we see drug dis­cov­ery.

An­a­genex cur­rent­ly has about 18 em­ploy­ees, and plans to reach 30 with­in the next 18 months or so.

In the mean­time, An­a­genex’s board gets two new mem­bers as part of the raise: Catalio co-founder and part­ner George Petrochei­los as a di­rec­tor and Catalio an­a­lyst Matthew Hob­son as an ob­serv­er.

Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

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Don Kyle spent more than 20 years working for Purdue Pharma, right through the US opioid epidemic that led to the company’s rise and eventual infamy. But contrary to Purdue’s focus on OxyContin, Kyle was researching non-opioid painkillers — that is, until the company shelved his research.

As the company’s legal troubles mounted, Kyle found an unlikely way to reboot the project. In 2019, he took his work to an Oklahoma State University center that’s slated to receive more than two-thirds of the state’s $272 million settlement with Purdue over claims that the drugmaker’s behavior ignited the epidemic of opioid use and abuse.

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Bill Haney, Dragonfly CEO (Dave Pedley/Getty Images for SXSW)

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FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 2023 (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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