Alphabet-owned Isomorphic Labs is expanding its business by shelling out pharmaceutical talent and opening a new office, as the artificial intelligence discovery start-up moves closer to closing its first commercial deal.
The UK-registered group was spun off from its sister company Deep SpiritGoogle’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 drug companies and is expected to announce a deal in the coming months, two people familiar with the plans said.
The work benefits from DeepMind’s scientific breakthrough of its AlphaFold2 technology, which can be used to predict the shape of any protein in the human body with near-perfect accuracy.
Colin Murdoch, chief business officer at DeepMind, has been put in charge of establishing Isomorphic Labs, working closely with Demis Hassabiswho is CEO of both DeepMind and Isomorphic Labs.
“It takes about 10 years to take a drug [to market], and often most fail unfortunately, and so inspired by the work we’ve done with AlphaFold, we’ve looked deeper. . . and, in fact, built a 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.
The expansion of Isomorphic comes in the midst of a wave of interest in start-ups pledging to use AI to transform drug discovery, with UK and US funding in the field rising to more than $1.6 billion this year, compared to $668.5 million in 2017, according to PitchBook data.
When AlphaFold’s breakthrough was announced in November 2020DeepMind said it would try to use the technology to find treatments for Chagas disease and Leishmaniasis, two of the world’s most deadly diseases.
Murdoch said Isomorphic hadn’t targeted a specific drug or disease. “The goal is really to build an underlying platform that supports . . . agnostic to those therapeutic areas,” he said.
There are a number of “near AlphaFold scale” AI improvements the team is working on that would form the underlying engine for the platform, he added.
To lead its work in drug discovery, Isomorphic has hired several executives and associates with both scientific and pharmaceutical backgrounds, as well as in machine learning, developing computer systems that can learn through data.
The company is also expanding beyond its London headquarters to a second office in Lausanne, Switzerland, home to many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, including Roche, Novartis and Bayer, and Isomorphic’s chief technology officer Sergei Yakneen.
Yakneen previously worked at Amazon and Sophia Genetics, a company that uses machine learning to identify tumors and other health problems.
Other Isomorphic executives include Miles Congreve, Chief Scientific Officer, who previously worked at Astex Pharmaceuticals and GSK. Several contributors have joined from DeepMind, as well as BenevolentAI, Google, and AstraZeneca.
“The goal of Isomorphic is to produce drugs that we can then partner with pharmaceuticals to bring to the clinic and to people with clinical needs,” Murdoch said.
He added that Isomorphic “began thinking about what the right commercial path is. We have a great leadership team working and making fantastic progress.”
The company said it is in talks with “many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies” without providing further details. It expects to form a number of partnerships as it scales.
Murdoch said Isomorphic would hire more staff next year. James Girling, the leader in talent acquisition, recently addressed a post on LinkedIn about tech workers laid off by Twitter.
While the AI market for drug discovery has seen growing interest in recent years, investment in the sector is not immune to this year’s technical defeat. Venture capital funding is down 15 percent from $2 billion last year, according to data from PitchBook.
Some in the medical field are skeptical that AI drug discovery will live up to its hype, pointing to the need to navigate strict regulations and integrate into aging healthcare systems.
A recent Morgan Stanley report noted that investors should see “solid evidence for real-world use cases for AI-assisted drug discovery.”
However, it added that this method of drug discovery could lead to an additional 50 new therapies over the next 10 years, creating a potential $50 billion opportunity.
Isomorphic reported a £2.4 million loss for the 11 months to December 2021, according to UK Companies House filings. This includes £470,455 of contract research and development services received from DeepMind when the company launched.
Additional reporting by Madhumita Murgia and Hannah Kuchler in London