- UK-based biotech unicorn BenevolentAI just raised $US115 million at a $US2 billion valuation.
- The company uses artificial intelligence to help discover new drugs to treat conditions like Parkinson’s disease and rare cancers.
- Applying artificial intelligence to drug discovery – which can often be a long, expensive process – has started attracting more attention from investors.
BenevolentAI, a UK-based startup that uses artificial intelligence to discover new treatments just raised $US115 million.
The funding, which came from existing investors including Woodford Investment Management, values the six-year-old company at $US2 billion, a unicorn status held by only a few biotech companies.
Applying artificial intelligence to drug discovery – which can often be a long, expensive process – has started attracting more attention from investors. In March, TwoXar, a startup that uses its software to discover new experimental drugs for other companies, raised $US10 million and Atomwise, which designs drugs that companies can then test out, raised $US45 million in its series A round in March. IBM’s Watson AI has also been used in drug discovery.
To see how that works, picture a pharmaceutical company on the hunt for new drugs to develop. Traditionally, that company would seek to figure out the science behind a particular disease, working to find disease targets it could then design drugs to go after. This can be a lengthy process involving a lot of lab work and uncertainty over whether the drug will work when it is tested in animals. And often, the scientists working on it have a very specialised understanding of a particular disease that influences how they approach the problem.
Ideally, BenevolentAI’s technology can amplify that information, opening up the possibility of finding more experimental drugs. The company’s founder Ken Mulvany compared it to an algorithm developed at Stanford that was able to deduce a person’s sexuality more accurately than people could. Mulvany said that humans often miss signals that AI can pick up on, which could be helpful in finding new approaches to treating diseases.
“We only know to look for the things that we know, rather than the actual signal that’s in there,” Mulvany told Business Insider.
To start, BenevolentAI focuses in on a particular disease – so far, that’s been around diseases of the central nervous system and rare cancers, as well as some work with Parkinson’s disease – then finds drug targets with its technology, and goes on to test it out in their labs. To date, the company has about 20 drugs in the works. The hope that some of these will pan out and make it through the clinical trial process factors into the company’s high valuation.
“I think the assumption from investors is that some will make it because the AI is changing the risk profile because we’re getting better by predicting what may work what may not,” James Chandler, BenevolentAI’s vice president of corporate affairs told Business Insider.
The funding will be used to keep developing the drugs the company has discovered, along with potentially expanding BenevolentAI’s technology to other fields including energy and agriculture.