Former Google AI expert raises $100 million for biotech start-up

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A biotech start-up founded by a former Google artificial intelligence expert has raised $100 million from Silicon Valley heavyweights Nvidia and Andreessen Horowitz as the market for generative AI applications expands into pharmaceuticals.

Palo Alto-based Inceptive plans to use the funds to develop new types of vaccines and drugs. It’s designing “biological software” using the latest AI technologies pioneered by company founder Jakob Uszkoreit, who co-authored the paper that pioneered generative AI advances like ChatGPT.

Software program code executable instructions on a computer, he said. “We want to do that but with cells in your body.”

Inceptive is one of a new generation of start-ups that have collectively raised billions of dollars to apply AI to drug development. It’s part of a race by Big Pharma and investors to capitalize on the $50bn market opportunity for AI in the sector, according to a Morgan Stanley report.

The four-year-old start-up was valued at $100 million in 2021 after it raised $20 million in seed funding. The latest round, which included new investors such as Obvious Ventures, tripled Inceptive’s valuation, according to a source close to the deal.

The company has created an AI software platform that designs entirely unique molecules made of mRNA, the biological unit that Pfizer and BioNTech used to make their Covid-19 vaccines. Once Inceptive performs these tests in its lab, it licenses the molecules to pharmaceutical companies to synthesize and conduct clinical trials.

Inceptive said it is working with a large European pharmaceutical company, which is experimenting with the start-up’s molecules to develop a new infectious disease vaccine. The success of mRNA against Covid-19 has yet to be replicated in other vaccines.

“We want to provide that as a horizontal capability to any entity developing mRNA and then RNA drugs,” Uszkoreit said. “Between pre-clinical and clinical trials, there are currently about 310 programs in flight.”

He added that “conservative estimates” show that more than 700 mRNA drugs will be developed by the end of the decade.

Other biotechs that have announced drugs they discovered or developed using AI tools include XCyantia, Verge Genomics and Recursion Pharmaceuticals. However, most of the time and expense of the drug development process is in clinical trials rather than designing molecules.

Uszkoreit, who spent most of his career at Google working on AI research, has always been interested in the biological applications of machine learning. When he was at the US tech giant, he used AI to predict the structure of human proteins. His work on Transformers eventually led to Google DeepMind, the London-based AI unit that invented Alphafold, an algorithm designed to predict the structure of nearly every known protein.

“We want to increase the positive impact of this kind of work in AI,” he said.

Uszkoreit co-authored a Transformers research paper first published in June 2017. Since then, all of his co-authors have left Google, primarily to found their own start-ups as the global race for generative AI talent heats up.

NVentures, Nvidia’s venture capital arm, is one of Inceptive’s new investors and has backed several AI-focused start-ups in recent months. They include the Israeli AI21 Lab, which is building its own large language model to compete with the likes of Google and OpenAI, and Aleph Alpha, a German competitor to OpenAI.

Nvidia recently invested $50mn in Utah-based, AI-powered drug discovery platform Recursion. Inceptive’s funding from NVentures is an equity investment but also gives it access to some of Nvidia’s cutting-edge computing platforms, including its latest chips, the company said.

Nvidia declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler

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