AI drug discovery firm Exscientia gets $60M cash injection

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UK artificial intelligence specialist Exscientia has topped up its coffers with a $60 million Series C funding round that will be used to advance projects into clinical trials.

The Oxford-based company – which reckons its AI approach to drug discovery can carve up to 75% off the time it takes to find preclinical candidates – also plans to use the money to launch new research projects and invest in its technology platform, as well as to expand in the US market.

The financing round was led by new investor Novo Holdings – Novo Nordisk’s investment fund – with existing backers including Evotec, Bristol Myers Squibb, and GT Healthcare Capital also taking part.

Exscientia saw its first drug candidate start a clinical trial earlier this year at licensee Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, becoming the first AI-designed drug to reach the human testing stage.

The drug – called DSP-1181 – is being developed as a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and went from discovery to clinical trials in just 12 months instead of the usual 4.5 years or so for a new drug.

Interest in using AI and machine learning to boost efficiency of drug discovery and development has been rising as the biopharma industry is facing declining returns on investment, and desperately needs more efficient R&D methods to boost productivity.

Last year, Exscientia’s second-round financing raised $26 million, and that was followed by a licensing deal with Celgene (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) which included another $25 million upfront and involved the application of the UK firm’s “full-stack” drug discovery capabilities to the entire R&D project, from gene to the drug candidate.

It also has partnerships in place with Bayer, Rallybio and GT Apeiron, and a few weeks ago joined the effort to find treatments for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, teaming up with a unit of the Scripps Research Institute in the US to screen nearly every known approved and investigational drug against COVID-19 targets.

The global market for AI in healthcare was worth $2.1bn in 2018, with exponential growth to $36.1bn predicted by 2025, at a combined annual growth rate of 50.2%, according to a recent report by finnCap.

“We have now demonstrated multiple times that our platform can accelerate the time between the start of an idea and a viable new drug candidate for patients in need of treatments, fast tracking the entire R&D process,” commented Prof Andrew Hopkins, Exscientia’s chief executive and founder.

“We are delighted that Novo Holdings, one of the world’s preeminent life science investors, recognises the potential of the platform to transform the pharmaceutical industry,” he added.