March 4, 2021

Exscientia raises $100m to build automated drug-hunting platform

The Oxford AI drug discovery company says it can cut down the time of finding new drugs to 6 months with a new automated system.

Maija Palmer

3 min read

The next stage of AI drug discovery is making it automated — like autonomous driving for the pharma industry, says Andrew Hopkins, the founder of AI drug discovery Exscientia. It could mean getting a new drug ready for the clinical trial phase in just 6 months, dramatically speeding up our ability to find new cures.

The Oxford-based company has just pulled in another $30m investment, this time from Blackrock, the US investment management corporation, taking its Series C funding round up to $100m, in order to build the technology to make this possible.

AI-based drug discovery companies like Exscientia are already cutting down on the time and cost of finding new drugs by using AI to model compounds to create new drugs. Current iterations of the technology can get a new drug through to the clinical trial phase in a year, five times faster than it would take using traditional drug discovery methods.

You don't know if you are playing chess, Go or Starcraft.

But Hopkins believes it is possible to get rid of even more roadblocks in the process. The company has been involved in several projects last year to find new drugs to treat Covid-19, and to repurpose old drugs for treating the disease. The experience, says Hopkins, was a watershed.

"It changed all our assumptions about speed and how long it is reasonable for patients to wait for cures," he told Sifted.

The experience set the Exscientia team looking for new ways to speed up the discovery process. Making the AI programmes more autonomous is part of that.

"The challenge with hunting for new drugs is that you often don't know if you are playing chess, Go or Starcraft," said Hopkins, referencing some of the games that advanced AI systems have been trained to play in the past few years. "Human drug hunters are often essential for working out which strategy to follow in order to find a particular treatment. But now we could get algorithms to make some of those decisions."

Exscientia is also working to bring AI design and traditional laboratory work closer together and has recently tripled the amount of laboratory space it has in Oxford.

AI-designed drugs are still at the very early stage of being introduced. A precision-engineered drug to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, which Exscientia designed with Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, earlier this year become the first AI-designed drug to enter Phase 1 clinical trials. A trial of this kind can take at least a year to run.

But pharma groups are increasingly interested to see if this approach can speed up the extremely slow drug development pipeline — it takes around 10 years to bring a new drug to market — and to see if can solve seemingly intractable healthcare problems. Exscientia recently received a $4.2m grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify new treatments for malaria and tuberculosis, the leading causes of death worldwide.

Exscientia is also developing drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease, together with the University of Oxford Drug Discovery Institute, and has partnerships with many of the big global pharmaceuticals companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Celgene unit, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and Roche.

Exscientia raised $70m last May from investors including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novo Holdings, Evotec and GT Technologies, and has doubled its headcount to more than 100 in the past year, including half a dozen big-name hires in the last six months.