Tim Lu is ready to take his AI-focused biotech to the next level with first big fundraising round
Famous MIT researcher Tim Lu took the wraps off a transpacific biotech he’d launched a little over three years ago with his brother Jeffrey with a $10 million seed round, attempting to use machine learning to develop new small molecule drugs. Now, the company is ready to take its next step.
Engine Biosciences unveiled its first major VC round with a $43 million Series A, the biotech announced Wednesday morning. Over the last three years, the company has worked to establish its platform, Jeffrey Lu — who is Engine’s CEO — told Endpoints News, and recently nominated two targets for their internal pipeline.
With the new funds, Lu expects Engine has enough runway to get its lead program into its first clinical trial by 2023.
Back in 2018, the Lu brothers were part of a wave of biotechs that set the field abuzz, with their efforts to tie AI and machine learning to hands-on drug development work. It’s an idea that’s gained traction over the last several years, as more companies and biopharmas aim to speed up the discovery process and cut down on R&D costs.
Their team also included a host of big names in the field, including Tim Lu’s MIT colleague Jim Collins, Mayo Clinic professor Hu Li and UC-San Diego researcher Prashant Mali.
Engine’s approach combines two different systems into one platform. The first allows the company to test how hundreds of thousands of possible genetic combinations can be affected by edits or changes, and the second feeds those experiments into an algorithm that can predict how those changes might be implicated by new drugs.
Jeffrey Lu said researchers can start with either system, but Engine itself began on the experiment side.
“It’s kind of chicken and egg for what comes first,” Lu told Endpoints. “[The system] allows us to use things like CRISPR for multiple edits in a single cell, knocking down or switching expression two or three at a time, and seeing what happens to a cell.”
After three years of buildup, however, Lu added that the AI algorithm is advanced enough to function as the starting point as well, making predictions about how edited cells might react to drugs. That work can then be checked by researchers, using the platform to conduct its experiments.
Engine has taken advantage of CRISPR thus far to conduct some of its editing experiments, but the platform is adaptable to other methods such as microRNA and gene expression, Lu said. It’s allowed them to prep its first pipeline candidate where they’re going after liver, ovarian and colorectal cancer all at once.
The biotech’s platform helped discover a genetic mutation linked to all three of these cancer types, though Jeffrey Lu is keeping his cards close to the vest here. He declined to reveal both the target and the biomarker for this small molecule program, noting only that IND studies will likely begin in 2022 with the goal for a 2023 clinical trial.
Engine’s second program, which is a bit further behind the lead, is aiming for triple negative breast cancer at first.
Wednesday’s round was led by Polaris Partners, joined by a prominent undisclosed Singapore firm and Invus. Existing investors also participated, including 6 Dimensions Capital, WuXi AppTec, DHVC, EDBI, Baidu Ventures, Vectr Ventures, Goodman Capital, WI Harper, and Nest.Bio.