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New innovation lab brings together pharma, biotech giants for AI therapeutics

Pfizer, Merck, Teva, Amazon form consortium that runs AION Labs, an Israeli facility that will focus on harnessing artificial intelligence in drug development

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Startups and Business editor and reporter.

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

Pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Merck and Teva Pharmaceuticals, together with tech giant Amazon Web Services and the Israel Biotech Fund, officially opened a new innovation lab in Israel this week that will foster the creation of new startups developing cutting-edge AI-based computational technologies to help find personalized drugs and treatments for patients.

The facility, dubbed AION Labs, will be headed by CEO Mati Gill, a former senior executive at Teva Pharmaceuticals, and CTO Dr. Yair Benita, the former head of computational biology at Compugen, and science operations at CytoReason, and principal scientist at MSD (Merck).

AION Labs is set to help create and invest in early-stage startups focused on AI and computational biology in drug discovery and development. The lab will also offer resources and mentorship as these startups develop new technologies for the pharmaceutical industry.

The facility will include a “wet” lab, where biomedical research is performed, and a cloud-based computational lab infrastructure to assist early-stage entrepreneurs and startups in their work, from the ideation stage to reaching proof of concept. A wet lab is a carefully designed space, constructed and controlled to avoid spillage of potentially wet hazards and contamination

The startups will “harness the power of artificial intelligence, and scale and security of the cloud, to find new treatments faster and more efficiently, avoid animal experiments, and advance healthcare towards patient-centric precision medicine,” according to the announcement Wednesday.

Gill told The Times of Israel in a phone interview that “being able to harness computational capabilities, algorithms, cloud-based technologies, AI, machine learning etc., can really catalyze the way we discover new drugs, and improve, optimize, and increase the personalized efficiency with which we actually develop drugs.”

“We’re looking to tap into the Israeli and global ecosystem, but it’s not by coincidence that our partners chose to take the opportunity to establish this in Israel, where we have incredible basic research capabilities in life sciences, together with AI capabilities,” said Gill.

“AION Labs is an excellent example of what Pfizer seeks to help build through collaboration within biopharma and across industries: a program with the potential to accelerate the development of meaningful breakthroughs that could change patients’ lives,” said Uwe Schoenbeck, Ph.D., Senior Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer for Emerging Science and Innovation at Pfizer, in a statement. “We look forward to playing a pivotal role in AION’s pursuit of innovation.”

Joern-Peter Halle, head of Global Research at the Healthcare Business Sector of Merck said the new lab builds “on our longstanding and successful investments in innovation coming out of Israel. We are excited to work with the partners to create tangible value in applying AI to drug discovery and development in the biopharmaceutical industry and make virtual drug discovery a reality.”

A good model

Gill said AION Labs is modeled after BioMed X, an independent biomedical research institute based in Heidelberg, Germany, and with which AION Labs also announced a strategic agreement. According to the deal, BioMed X will serve as the R&D engine to “propel AION Labs’ venture creation model.”

BioMed X brings together “early research, academia and startups, and has been working for about a decade successfully developing new projects based upon the biggest R&D challenges that the industry faces. And we are going to bring that model to Israel and adapt it,” Gill said.

Christian Tidona, founder and managing director of BioMed X, said the institute was “excited to extend our successful innovation model to Israel. In our view, Israel is currently the best place to jointly leverage the power of artificial intelligence for drug discovery and development together with leading global players in pharmaceuticals, tech and venture capital.”

The consortium of companies forming AION Labs won a government tender to do so by the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) last December.

The IIA had identified life sciences as a vital area for growth potential and investment and launched an innovation labs program in 2017. The program seeks to prod international corporations into setting up these labs to support startups in their field of interest and to take part in the Israeli ecosystem by gaining exposure to a variety of innovative developments. For startup entrepreneurs, the labs present an opportunity to access technological infrastructure, market insights and industry expertise.

The initiative came at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how big pharmaceutical firms can benefit from tapping into new technologies. The rapid development of vaccines for the COVID-19 virus owes its success in large part to the artificial intelligence capabilities deployed by Pfizer and Moderna, which have been the first to market with their COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’ve seen what AI and new technologies can do to revolutionize the industry when you have record times for drug development and record times for vaccine development using new technologies like mRNA, on which the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNtech vaccines are based.” said Gill. “And our partners chose to work together in doing so, both to learn from each other and to leverage our strength in numbers.”

Gill added that AION Labs will “work with each of the companies alone and in collaboration to choose 4-6 R&D challenges that we will focus on every year — anywhere from ‘how do we discover new drugs based on AI technologies and how do we develop technologies that will be impactful in the way that we develop drugs, and not just discover them.”

The lab will then “do a global call for applications with a focus on Israelis, a strong focus on attracting Israelis who are currently abroad, who have left Israel after their doctorate or after their post-doc, offering them a chance to come back to Israel and do ground-breaking science research in the best environment we can offer for startups to thrive in, where they’ll receive full funding for four years, supported by the Israeli government and our partners and with hands-in mentorship and guidance,” Gill explained.

Each of the formed startups will receive $1,000,000 (NIS 3,220,000) in seed funding for the first two years, and another $1,000,000 for the next three-to-four years, and will be able to raise money with investors and strategic partners, Gill said.

Shoshanna Solomon contributed to this report

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