Israeli innovation lab backed by pharma and biotech giants creates first AI startup

Israeli innovation lab backed by pharma and biotech giants creates first AI startup

An Israeli biotech innovation lab established last year and backed by some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Merck has formed a new startup that will harness artificial intelligence (AI) to assess the effectiveness of drugs in preclinical trials and improve the chances of success. in later stages.

The startup, OMEC.AI, is the first company created with funding and support from AION Labs, a Rehovot-based organization launched last October with a mission to create and invest in early-stage startups focused on the AI and computational biology in drug discovery and development. AION Labs is a collaboration between pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Merck, and Teva Pharmaceuticals, along with Amazon’s AWS and the Israel Biotech Fund, and is led by Mati Gill, a former Teva senior executive, and Dr. Yair Benita, the former Head of Computational Biology at Compugen, Science Operations at CytoReason and Principal Scientist at MSD (Merck).

AION Labs has hosted three bootcamps over the past year for founders and inventors in the field of science that have focused on solving key industry challenges identified by global pharmaceutical companies, such as designing antibodies for targeted therapies and data analysis using AI to assess and predict the clinical readiness of drug candidates.

That latest challenge produced OMEC.AI, founded this summer with $2m (NIS 7m) seed funding by AI experts Ori Shachar and Amir Harel, who both led AI teams at Mobileye. , the Jerusalem-based self-driving subsidiary of Intel. The two co-founders also led teams at SeeTree, a Tel Aviv startup that uses data to assess the health and productivity of tree networks, and hold degrees in computer science and bioinformatics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Shachar and Harel were selected as the winners of the challenge (out of 15 participating groups) by the AION Labs investment committee and will now work closely with partner pharmaceutical companies to develop their AI systems.

“Our mission is to help pharmaceutical companies have a better chance in clinical trials by making better data-driven decisions in the preclinical process,” Shachar told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

It can take pharmaceutical companies several years to reach a stage where the effects and toxicity of a drug candidate can be studied in humans – an important, expensive and difficult process often marred by roadblocks and failure rates. high (failure rate of 25% on toxicity and 50% on efficacy).

One of the key issues is that pharmaceutical companies use a number of non-human models, “some of them outdated like mice and rats” in in-vivo studies (done on living organisms) , as well as in-vitro experiments (done in controlled laboratory environments) to evaluate new drugs before they can be tested in humans, Shachar said.

In these preclinical stages, pharmaceutical companies often rely on “what we call low-dimensional data, so when they do trials in mice, they usually use weight, enzymes, and blood tests,” to make factor-based decisions “even when they know these models aren’t the best and don’t even necessarily look like humans,” said Shachar, who serves as CEO.

Illustrative: Research assistant Katie McCullough holds a mouse in a University of Washington lab where doctors are studying a rare form of autism, Dec. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

“We use the latest technique called gene expression where we can understand the function of each [human] cell by which genes are expressed in the body [as a response]. This gives more information to researchers; it further exposes what the drug does. But these methods are difficult for biologists to use because it’s a lot of data and cells and they don’t have the methods to get the information they’re looking for,” he said. “We have combined these technologies with the latest AI that enables better decision-making based on rich data systems.”

“We see a future where such methods will change the way we interpret biology and redesign the way pharmaceutical drug development will be done,” Shachar continued. The name of the startup, OMEC.AI, reflects this vision, as it derives from omics, a multidisciplinary field of biology that encompasses genomics (the study of genes), proteomics (the study of proteins), metabolomics (the study of metabolites) and epigenomics (the study of genetic changes in cells).

The idea is to provide an automated, data-driven solution that can produce a reliable assessment of a proposed drug’s clinical trial readiness, a gap the industry has identified, said Harel, CTO of OMEC.AI. .

“We are bringing a new approach – IT tools – to change the situation. The opportunity for us is to work with pharmaceutical experts who are developing drugs, and they admit they need help,” Harel explained.

The new startup will work with pharma companies in the planning stages as well as during the clinical stages to deliver their analytics, the founders said, noting the “tremendous opportunity” derived from combining the strengths of AI technology and of biology.

“It’s a huge change in the field. There is a lot to gain. Artificial intelligence experts will become an inseparable part of the pharmaceutical industry,” Shachar said.

“But there’s a big learning curve, for everyone, on the biology side and on the business side. This is where AION Labs helps; they have mentors, advisers and executives [from pharmaceutical companies] which are just a phone call away,” he added.

Softness Points

The challenge that OMEC.AI seeks to address “is particularly suited to the sweet spot of Israel” as a leader in AI technologies, Gill, CEO of AION Labs, told The Times of Israel. “AI entrepreneurs come in and apply, but they don’t necessarily need to have expertise in the biotech field, because we bring that piece of the puzzle. The challenge really lies in integrating the data at the base. »

“There are many opportunities for AI, machine learning, and computational biology to propel understanding of human biology into the pharmaceutical industry…in ways that have never been done,” said Gill, suggesting that in the future “we could eliminate the need for animal studies.

Mati Gill, CEO of AION Labs, left, and Yair Benita, Ph.D., CTO. (Elad Malka)

The formation of OMEC.AI is a milestone for AION Labs and a “real world example of solving an unmet need, finding a product that fits the market, and the exact model for tech entrepreneurs to enter the market.” field of biotechnology” to produce “a revolutionary project. technology,” Gill continued.

Israel has identified bio-convergence – the intersection of biology, engineering and AI – as a national R&D priority, with a number of programs already underway.

The consortium of companies that formed AION Labs won a government tender to do so by the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) in 2020. The IIA had launched an innovation lab program there has four years to encourage international companies to settle in Israel and gain visibility. to a variety of innovative developments in the field of life sciences.

AION Labs is inspired by BioMed X, an independent biomedical research institute based in Heidelberg, Germany, which identifies industry R&D challenges and conducts a global talent search for founding scientists.

With OMEC.IA, “we have a very concrete example of bringing in AI experts that will help revolutionize biotechnology,” Gill said. Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Merck are directly invested in the new startup, which is also receiving government funding, totaling around $2 million in its early stages.

The Pfizer building on East 42nd Street in New York. (ChainGangPictures via iStock by Getty Images)

Gill said AION Labs’ business was going according to plan, but there were significant challenges, the main one being “the different set of technology and biotech expectations,” he said. he explains. “With biotech, you have intellectual property [intellectual property], and you form a team to develop it. It can be a good team or a bad team but you have a protected asset. In tech, if the team leaves, you no longer have a company. So there is a process of educating our industry on these shortcomings.

“Our goal is to find the right, best-in-class entrepreneurs who can appreciate the potential of biotechnology. It’s a bit like building a coalition, we all have a North Star.

AION Labs is now preparing to hold a fourth bootcamp this winter to take on a new challenge from the pharmaceutical industry, and will soon announce the creation of its second company.

“We are ready to work with four founders by the end of the year,” Gill said.

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