Artificial intelligence could potentially disrupt nearly every industry. Pharma giants have continued to take note. From AI in drug discovery to digital therapeutics, big name life science companies have invested time and money into the space.
However, big tech’s move fast and break things mentality doesn’t always align with pharma’s regulated model. Today a number of accelerators and labs are looking to bring technologists, scientists, and venture and life-science companies together early to work on some of the biggest issues in biotech.
Aion Labs out of Israel is focused on using AI in pharma. Founded in 2021, it’s currently taking applications from computational biologists, bioinformaticists, AI researchers and other scientists for its third challenge, to result in the creation of a new AI-focused platform designed to help pharma research. The lab works with major pharma companies, such as AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, Israel Biotech Fund and Teva Pharmaceuticals, as well as tech company Amazon Web Services.
“Merck and the other partners are very interested in new biological entities, namely a lot of constructs that are based on antibody design,” Noga Yerushalmi, investment director at Merck’s M Ventures, told MobiHealthNews.
“And until today, in order to produce an antibody, to become a therapeutic drug, you needed to do some stages that were biological. … The first crop of proposals in Aion Labs actually created the ecosystem to come up with solutions that can do this whole process completely computationally, meaning from the structure.
“This 3D structure of your target could design a molecule computationally, and afterwards we can synthesize it, and try it, and see if it works. But the ability to do that comes with a lot of data from previous structure analysis and previous antibody designs that were done, and we can supply this company with a lot of data, and also with the advances in some computational tools that currently enable the modeling of almost any protein through a computer.”
The program brings finalists into a five-day boot camp in Rehovot, Israel, and matches them up with teammates. The winning team of scientists gets mentorship from pharma, tech and venture capital companies during a fully funded incubation period of up to four years.
Today there are a lot of challenges in using artificial intelligence to help fuel life-science research.
“One of the challenges is to organize the data. We are talking about a lot of data that we can definitely supply,” Yerushalmi said. “Each pharma company does not standardize a way to gather data. You need to arrange it to collect it, or to filter it. So there’s a lot of work to be done on the data itself to enable the usage of this data.
“We’re going to need a lot of innovation or talent to look at and build those solutions. We know that AI can drive those things, but any challenge would need a whole new algorithm to enable those AI tools to reach the target, to reach the desired goal.”
However, Aion Labs is pitching its model as a way to help ease these challenges and bring folks from multiple industries together from the get-go.
“There are all these roadblocks. We need to remove these roadblocks. And the way we decided to do that is we said, ‘We need to do this together. We need to collaborate.’ The pharma companies need to collaborate on how to address the data problems, then AWS needs to be there as a technology infrastructure partner to say, ‘Okay, we have to protect the data, protect privacy,'” Dr. Yair Benita, CTO of Aion Labs, told MobiHealthNews.
“We still need to give them access to all the tools. We need access to funding. We need innovation engines, all of those. We try to package everything so that [we’re] basically bringing [together] people who are brilliant and can just push through the problem on the scientific side.”
The lab also brings competitors together across the field.
“[There] are four pharma companies in this picture, and it’s not trivial that we work together. We’re kind of competitors. But to come under the same roof and find out that we are actually encountering the same challenges, and we would like to generate together tools that can help all of us, is really something extraordinary.”
Aion Labs is based in Israel and funded by the Israeli government. Benita said that Israel is a ripe place for innovation for a few key reasons.
“It’s very entrepreneurial in spirit. But I think it also has to do with the fact that Israel is relatively small and very connected. Noga, for example, knew all her peers from Pfizer, AZ and American Teva before Aion Labs was created, so people know each other.
“It’s very digitized. And you could see also, through COVID, the deployment of vaccines, analyzing the data, collecting the data, Israel was [advanced]. That’s because everything is really nicely connected, and that gives a very strong added value.”
Aion Labs isn’t the only program looking to bring stakeholders from life science, tech and venture together. Digital health veteran Naomi Fried and pharmaceutical exec Laura Gunn founded PharmStars in 2021, with a focus on educating health tech companies and pharma on working together.