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AI-assisted biotech startup Owkin becomes latest French unicorn

$180m investment from Sanofi shows pharma companies are taking AI tools seriously.

By Maija Palmer

Thomas Clozel and Gilles Wainrib, Owkin's cofounders

Owkin, a startup applying machine learning to medical research, has become France’s latest unicorn after a $180m investment by pharmaceuticals company Sanofi.

In addition to its investment, Sanofi signed a three-year partnership agreement — which includes a $90m upfront payment — to use Owkin’s technology in the development of treatments for breast cancer, lung cancer, mesothelioma and multiple myeloma. Owkin’s predictive AI can be used to detect predictive biomarkers for diseases and treatment outcomes, making clinical trials more efficient.

It is the latest in a run of big funding rounds for French companies. In September, sports NFT company Sorare set a new French record with a €580m round, also becoming a unicorn in the process.

It is also another sign that big pharmaceutical companies are starting to seriously leverage the potential of AI-assisted drug and treatment discovery.

The first clinical trials of drugs discovered using AI-assisted methods are being carried out, including human trials of a drug to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder by Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, which UK-based Exscientia helped discover. Healx, another UK-based AI-assisted biotech company, recently started clinical trials of a treatment for Fragile X syndrome.

Pharma companies like Bayer, BMS, Sanofi, GSK, and Celgene all have deals with Exscientia, which recently listed on Nasdaq at a £2.9bn valuation. Before the Sanofi deal Owkin had also partnered with Roche.

Founded in 2016, Owkin had previously raised $70m from investors including GV, Eight Roads Ventures and Bpifrance.

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