Alphabet-owned Isomorphic Labs is ramping up operations by poaching pharma talent and opening a new office as the artificial intelligence drug discovery startup nears closing its first commercial deal.
The UK-registered group spun off from sister company DeepMind, Google’s AI unit, in November last year to focus on using AI technology to create new drugs to treat and prevent disease.
Isomorphic is currently in talks with major pharmaceutical companies and is expected to announce a deal in the coming months, according to two people familiar with the plans.
His work capitalizes on DeepMind’s scientific breakthrough with its AlphaFold2 technology, which can be used to predict the shape of every protein in the human body with near-perfect accuracy.
Colin Murdoch, Chief Commercial Officer of DeepMind, was tasked with setting up Isomorphic Labs, working closely with Demis Hassabis, who is Managing Director of DeepMind and Isomorphic Labs.
“It takes about 10 years to take a drug [to market], and often most of them unfortunately fail, and so inspired by the work we’ve done with AlphaFold, we took a deeper look. . . and fundamentally built the belief that there was a real opportunity here to apply AI to reinvent drug discovery,” Murdoch said in one of the company’s first interviews on Isomorphic.
Isomorphic’s expansion comes amid renewed interest in start-ups promising to use AI to transform drug discovery, with funding in the UK and US in the field reaching more than $1.6 billion this year, up from $668.5 million in 2017, according to data from PitchBook.
When the AlphaFold breakthrough was announced in November 2020, DeepMind said it would try to use the technology to find treatments for Chagas disease and leishmaniasis, two of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Murdoch said Isomorphic did not focus on any specific drug or disease. “The goal is actually to build an underlying platform that is . . . agnostic to these therapeutic areas,” he said.
The team is working on a number of “near AlphaFold-scale” AI advances that would provide the underlying engine for the platform, he added.
To conduct its work in drug discovery, Isomorphic has hired several executives and employees from scientific and pharmaceutical backgrounds, as well as in machine learning, developing computer systems capable of learning through data.
The company is also expanding beyond its London headquarters to a second office in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is home to a host of leading pharmaceutical companies including Roche, Novartis and Bayer, and the chief technology officer of ‘Isomorphic, Sergei Yakneen.
Yakneen previously worked at Amazon and Sophia Genetics, a company that uses machine learning to identify tumors and other health conditions.
Other Isomorphic executives include Chief Scientific Officer Miles Congreve, who previously worked at Astex Pharmaceuticals and GSK. Several staff members have joined DeepMind, as well as from BenevolentAI, Google and AstraZeneca.
“Isomorphic’s goal is to produce drugs that we can then partner with the pharmaceutical industry to get to the clinic and to people with clinical needs,” Murdoch said.
He added that Isomorphic was “beginning to think about the right business path. We have an incredible management team that is functioning and making fantastic progress.”
The company said it was in talks with “many major global pharmaceutical companies” without providing further details. It expects to engage in a number of partnerships as it scales.
Murdoch said Isomorphic will hire more staff next year. Its head of talent acquisition, James Girling, recently targeted a LinkedIn post for tech workers laid off by Twitter.
While the AI drug discovery market has seen growing interest in recent years, investment in the sector is not immune to this year’s technology rout. Venture capital funding fell 15% from last year’s $2 billion, according to data from PitchBook.
Some in the medical sector are skeptical of the success of AI drug discovery, pointing to the need to navigate strict regulations and integrate into outdated healthcare systems.
A recent report from Morgan Stanley noted that investors would need “strong evidence for real-world use cases for AI-based drug discovery.”
However, he added that this method of drug discovery could lead to an additional 50 new therapies over the next 10 years, presenting a potential $50 billion opportunity.
Isomorphic reported a loss of £2.4 million for the 11 months to December 2021, according to filings by UK Companies House. This includes £470,455 to receive contract research and development services from DeepMind when the company launches.
Additional reporting by Madhumita Murgia and Hannah Kuchler in London
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