Focus On AI

An Israeli Lab Tests A Unique Way Of Collaborating and Scaling AI

A new lab formed by four pharmaceutical companies, a German biomedical research institute, a venture capital firm, and Amazon Web Services is creating a radically different model for drug discovery that could become a blueprint for how companies collaborate, scale AI and work with startups in future.

 AION Labs, which was announced October 13, is a first-of-its-kind innovation lab spearheading the adoption of AI technologies and computational science to solve therapeutic challenges. The lab, which is based in Rehovot, Israel, was created with the support of the Israeli government and will combine the pharmaceutical expertise of AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, and Teva Pharmaceutical, with the R&D engine of Germany’s BioMed X, the technology knowhow of AWS and the investment experience of the Israel Biotech Fund.

The launch of this consortium follows the winning of a government tender from the Israel Innovation Authority. The government has identified life sciences as a vital area for growth potential and investment.

Instead of the standard industry practice of waiting for startup to prove a concept, then partnering for late-stage development and distribution, the owners of AION Labs will crowdsource the brightest scientists and technologists globally. The recruited multidisciplinary teams will create startups from scratch. The startups will focus on applying artificial intelligence and computational biology to specific challenges defined by industry in drug discovery and development.

The hand-picked startup founders will receive four years of runway funding and get access to to both a wet lab, where biomedical research will be performed, and a computational lab environment, focusing on the development of new algorithms and computational methods, with the aim of accelerating the discovery and development of potential new therapies. Both will be under the guidance of top senior researchers and experts from AION Labs’ partners.

AION Lab’s shareholders can all submit challenges for the startups to work on. The investment committee votes on which ones will be tackled. The first challenge – which was submitted by all four pharma companies – is to develop a platform that can harness the power of AI to automatically predict the best antibody drugs, circumventing years of research and billions of dollars in investment.

Therapeutic antibodies are well established life-saving drugs. Discovery of existing therapeutic antibodies relies on immunization or in-vitro selection from large, pre-defined libraries with limited sequence space coverage. Selecting a drug candidate from billions of potential antibody sequences can take years, is expensive and, in many cases, fails to identify functional antibodies. Recent advances in protein structure prediction, AI algorithms, and increased availability of experimentally determined antigen-antibody structures present a unique opportunity for AI-driven antibody discovery.

AION Labs is inviting computational biologists and biomedical scientists at academic and industry research labs worldwide to propose the development of a next-generation general computational platform for the design of high-affinity and bio-physically well-behaved antibody binders directed towards epitopes of choice, starting from an antigen structure or antigen sequence as an input. The AION Labs pharma partners involved in this project will provide data for model training and their expertise in setting specifications and evaluating the outcome.

It is a great opportunity for biomedical scientists from around the globe to learn how to become successful biotech entrepreneurs and create companies, says Christian Tidona, Founder and Managing Director of the BioMed X Institute.

AION Lab’s owners can invest in its startups, but they will not be given any special rights to the technology. The intellectual property will be wholly owned by the startups.

“The main difference with other models is they are all based on existing startups and existing licensing agreements. In this case we are choosing the most brilliant scientists and are seeding something that does not exist,” says Tidona.

A Groundbreaking Arrangement

The set-up is groundbreaking in multiple ways. It is the first time that an incubator has specifically been formed around AI for drug discovery and development.

Instead of the typical “area of mutual interest” agreement the four pharmaceutical companies have created a company together, an unprecedented move. AION Lab’s equity partners all had to “put skin in the game” by taking equity in the lab and making financial, time and mentoring commitments.

BioMed X, which has developed an “R&D engine” approach to connecting academia to business, will apply its process to search for tech entrepreneurs and scientists globally and vet them.

AWS is not just contributing Cloud expertise. It provides input on what challenges are tackled by the new startups. AION Labs sought a partner that knows about the specifics of biological data, with expertise in computing and storage. AWS works with all big pharmaceutical companies, as well as the entire life sciences sector, including startups and research. “They have real insights into the industry globally,” notes Gill.

The Israel Biotech Fund will ensure that the companies created are viable businesses with staying power, helping the Israeli government fix a hole in its market. While Israel has a thriving tech sector it has – until now – not succeeded in building a life sciences ecosystem.

Trust Building

“To make this work in this format took a year and a half of trust building and hundreds of hours of discussion,” says AION Labs CEO Mati Gill, a former senior executive at Teva Pharmaceutical. It was all done over video, due to COVID-19. Not being able to meet in person helped speed up the process since syncing schedules for international travel was not necessary, he says. “The first time I met some of the partners in person was after we submitted the tender bid.”

Now that the initial groundwork is out of the way, Jim Weatherall, AstraZeneca’s U.K.-based Vice President of Data Science & Artificial Intelligence, in Research and Development and the company’s board representative at AION Labs, says he is eager for the start of in-person collaboration.

AION Labs will open in January, in time for the first portfolio company’s launch.

“I am looking forward to the closeness of interaction, at a real entity, with very, very smart people working there, to the brainstorming, bootcamps and different events that will be held there and all of the real hands-on exercises at the wet lab on site,” says Weatherall.

Forming a company was a way to ensure commitment from all of the companies involved, he says. “Taking an equity stake in the lab makes it a real entity, a meaningful business partnership that is stronger than an affiliation.”

Creating startups from scratch and mentoring them during the evolution of their businesses is also a unique opportunity for pharma companies, says Weatherall. “A lot of startups are doing great work but once they get past a certain stage it is so difficult to get them aligned to big companies and they miss out because it is too late for them to change course.” To avoid that, AION Labs will bake in what big pharma needs from the start. 

An R&D Engine

That is where BioMed X comes in. An independent biomedical research institute based on the campus of Heidelberg University, BioMed X has a strong track record of seeding biomedical innovation at the interface between academic research and the pharmaceutical industry. It’s innovation model, based on global crowdsourcing and local incubation of the brightest research talents and ideas, will serve as the R&D engine to propel AION Lab’s venture creation model.

BioMed X publishes specific challenges from industry on its crowdsourcing platform and typically gets anywhere from 100 to 300 responses from up to 80 countries. Fifteen are selected and the scientists are invited to a five-day boot camp at the Heidelberg center. The applicants are divided into five competing groups. The groups pitch proposals on the last day to senior management of a pharmaceutical company. They are vetted not just on their ideas and the commercial viability of their projects but also on an individual basis to see how “coachable” they are, says Tidona. The winning applicants are offered help with everything from visas to housing and schooling for their children. At the end of five years the temporary research groups are disbanded and BioMed X helps them find new jobs.

The model is being tweaked for AION Labs so that it can be applied to startups rather than research groups. “We are starting with a big challenge from pharma, crowdsourcing the brightest talent, move them locally, and aim to turn them into successful entrepreneurs,” he says.

“Israel is a hungry place, and it has the right ingredients in the tech sector and know-how in creating startups,” says Tidona. “But everyone has understood that in the biotech field in order to have something that can be competitive globally there needs to be critical mass. That is why we have decided to recruit and physically move top young scientists to Israel.”

Building A Life Sciences Ecosystem in Israel

Israel has one global pharmaceutical company – Teva- but very few scaled-up life science startups. Though it regularly trains brilliant scientists in its universities, the country has suffered from a brain drain in the sector. The goal is to do something like what Israel has done with the car industry. Although it has no car manufacturers of its own it has created a thriving ecosystem of startups that serve the auto industry, attracting big automakers to set up innovation centers in the country. For this reason, AION Labs does not want to replicate the usual way of creating a startup: build it and then sell after three years, with a goal of making as much money as possible, says Gill. “We want to build companies that will grow over time, become mid-sized and reverse the brain drain.” While the search for scientists needed to populate AION Lab startups will be global, there will be a special emphasis on targeting communities of Israelis living abroad, he says.

“This is an example of a government doing something right,” says Gill. “It identified areas that interest industry and served as a catalyst for this type of group to come together. This is a long-term commitment. It is Israel saying that as a country that this is a national priority.”

AstraZeneca’s Weatherall says the government’s initiative was part of the draw for his company. “A major driver was the pro-active stance taken by the Israeli government,” he says. The Israel Innovation Authority contributed the lion’s share of the funding and “has helped set an important precedent in terms of priorities and stimulating innovation in this area and helping get targets aligned,“

A Blueprint For Future Collaborations

While it is early days AION Lab’s unique model could serve as a blueprint for future collaborations between companies and across industries, says Weatherall. “The fact that companies that normally compete can come together in a pre-competitive space is a model I would like to see more of in future,” he says.  “Each individual company clearly needs to have their IP and commercial business propositions but at the same time to be able to routinely carve out areas that could be solved in common. I think there is something there, a future world where there is much more cooperation within and across sectors, where appropriate.”

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.