SF tech start­up Atom­wise gets $45M for AI-pow­ered drug de­sign soft­ware

A Sil­i­con Val­ley soft­ware com­pa­ny that’s us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to take the guess work out of struc­ture-based drug de­sign is trot­ting out a siz­able Se­ries A round this morn­ing. The deal in­cludes in­vestors that run the gamut, from tech to bio­phar­ma to agro­chem­i­cals.

The com­pa­ny is called Atom­wise, and it’s haul­ing in $45 mil­lion in a round led by Mon­san­to Growth Ven­tures, tech in­vestors DCVC (Da­ta Col­lec­tive), and B Group Cap­i­tal – the VC fund found­ed by Face­book co-founder Ed­uar­do Saverin.

Abra­ham Heifets

In biotech mon­ey, $45 mil­lion is start­ing to seem stan­dard if not pal­try for a B round (a sign of the very flush times, no doubt). But in soft­ware, this dol­lar amount still makes a splash, Atom­wise’s CEO and co-founder Abra­ham Heifets tells me.

The com­pa­ny is work­ing on ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware that will help drug de­sign­ers find mol­e­cules that are worth pur­su­ing – a lengthy process that means time and mon­ey to the in­dus­try.

A lot of com­pa­nies are work­ing to find tar­gets on the bi­ol­o­gy side, Heifets said, ask­ing which pro­teins and path­ways play vi­tal roles in dis­eases.

“But once you’ve an­swered those ques­tions, you need a mol­e­cule that can block that pro­tein or in­hib­it that path­way specif­i­cal­ly. All of that de­sign is on the chem­istry side, and that’s what our soft­ware helps with,” Heifets said.

Right now, ul­tra-high-through­put screen­ing ro­bots do the work to sift through po­ten­tial mol­e­cules hunt­ing for the right puz­zle piece. They can get through about 100,000 com­pounds per day. Atom­wise’s soft­ware can run 10-20 mil­lion per day.

“We’ve seen a shift in the world from scarci­ty to abun­dance,” Heifets said. “We now have syn­the­sized on-de­mand li­braries, and you can or­der some­thing like 600 mil­lion mol­e­cules on the web. But you can’t test 600 mil­lion mol­e­cules phys­i­cal­ly. To grap­ple with the in­cred­i­ble suc­cess of the phar­ma man­u­fac­tur­ing com­mu­ni­ty, you need com­pu­ta­tion­al ap­proach­es.”

Al­though found­ed back in 2012, Atom­wise has seen much of its growth in the past two years. The com­pa­ny struck part­ner­ships with four large phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Mer­ck, mul­ti­ple biotechs, and over 40 ma­jor re­search uni­ver­si­ties.

Heifets sees the com­pa­ny’s tech as a so­lu­tion to the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try’s ROI prob­lem.

“The in­dus­try can’t keep go­ing with neg­a­tive ROIs much longer,” Heifets said. “We need new tech­niques. And we think – and have the da­ta to back it up – that AI is a so­lu­tion to those prob­lems.”

That’s a state­ment that might raise some eye­brows in the bio­phar­ma com­mu­ni­ty. There’s a bit of a de­bate over whether com­pa­nies like Atom­wise are over­stat­ing the pow­er of AI to save drug de­sign­ers time.

Sci­ence writer Derek Lowe has tak­en on Atom­wise and oth­er AI com­pa­nies in the past (read more here, here, and here).

“The whole com­pound screen­ing step is just an­oth­er ear­ly thing in pre­clin­i­cal space; 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?” Lowe wrote in a blog a few months ago.

Heifets, how­ev­er, is con­vinced. Af­ter send­ing Lowe’s state­ments to Atom­wise, Heifets wrote me this in an email:

“It’s com­mon­ly un­der­stood that the Lead Op­ti­miza­tion step is the most ex­pen­sive ($414 mil­lion ver­sus a Phase III clin­i­cal tri­al at $314 mil­lion, in 2010 dol­lars).””

Al­though phar­ma is the “big­ger eco­nom­ic op­por­tu­ni­ty,” Heifets said the com­pa­ny sees cus­tomers in both bio­phar­ma and agro­chem­i­cal in­dus­tries.

“The com­put­er doesn’t know or care if the car­bon atom is in­side a hu­man cell or a wheat cell,” Heifets said. “The ques­tion looks the same in bio­chem­istry. Plus, adding agro­chem­i­cal com­pounds makes the tech­nol­o­gy more ro­bust, so we find it valu­able.”

The soft­ware was valu­able enough to Mon­san­to, who led the Se­ries A round.

“We chose to in­vest based on the im­pres­sive re­sults we saw from Atom­wise in our own hands,” Kier­sten Stead, part­ner at Mon­san­to Growth Ven­tures, said in a state­ment. “Atom­wise was able to find promis­ing com­pounds against crop pro­tec­tion tar­gets that are im­por­tant ar­eas of fo­cus for agro­chem­i­cal R&D.”

Atom­wise, which em­ploys 17 to­day, will use the new cash to scale, most like­ly dou­bling its staff by the end of the year and push­ing the lim­its on the soft­ware’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

President Donald Trump (left) and Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed (Alex Brandon, AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: White House names fi­nal­ists for Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed — with 5 ex­pect­ed names and one no­table omis­sion

A month after word first broke of the Trump Administration’s plan to rapidly accelerate the development and production of a Covid-19 vaccine, the White House has selected the five vaccine candidates they consider most likely to succeed, The New York Times reported.

Most of the names in the plan, known as Operation Warp Speed, will come as little surprise to those who have watched the last four months of vaccine developments: Moderna, which was the first vaccine to reach humans and is now the furthest along of any US effort; J&J, which has not gone into trials but received around $500 million in funding from BARDA earlier this year; the joint AstraZeneca-Oxford venture which was granted $1.2 billion from BARDA two weeks ago; Pfizer, which has been working with the mRNA biotech BioNTech; and Merck, which just entered the race and expects to put their two vaccine candidates into humans later this year.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.

Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.

Covid-19 roundup: Mod­er­na read­ies to en­ter PhI­II in Ju­ly, As­traZeneca not far be­hind; EU ready to ne­go­ti­ate vac­cine ac­cess with $2.7B fund

Moderna may soon add another first to the Covid-19 vaccine race.

In March, the mRNA biotech was the first company to put a Covid-19 vaccine into humans. Next month, they may become the first company to put their vaccine into the large, late-stage trials that are needed to prove whether the vaccine is effective.

In an interview with JAMA editor Howard Bauchner, NIAID chief Anthony Fauci said that a 30,000-person, Phase III trial for Moderna’s vaccine could start in July. The news comes a week after Moderna began a Phase II study that will enroll several hundred people.

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José Basel­ga finds promise in new class of RNA-mod­i­fy­ing can­cer tar­gets, lock­ing in 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams with $55M

Having dived early into some of the RNA breakthroughs of the last decades — betting on Moderna’s mRNA tech and teaming up with Silence on the siRNA front — AstraZeneca is jumping into a new arena: going after proteins that modify RNA.

Their partner of choice is Accent Therapeutics, which is receiving $55 million in upfront payment to steer a selected preclinical program through to the end of Phase I. After AstraZeneca takes over, the Lexington, MA-based startup has the option to co-develop and co-commercialize in the US — and collect up to $1.1 billion in milestones in the long run. The deal also covers two other potential drug candidates.

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Joseph Kim, Inovio CEO (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

Caught in a stand­off with its con­tract man­u­fac­tur­er over Covid-19 vac­cine, In­ovio files suit in an at­tempt to break free while ri­vals race ahead

Inovio was one of the first vaccine developers to snag attention for a jab that their execs said promised to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Using their own unique DNA tech, CEO Joseph Kim said it took just 3 hours to work it out.

But while rivals are racing to the finish line with ambitious plans to make vast quantities of their vaccines with billions of dollars of deals, Inovio is still stuck at the starting line on manufacturing.