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AI-Designed Antibodies for Start-Up Sought in Open Call

Computational biology illustration

(Lawrence Livermore National Lab)

20 Oct. 2021. An international consortium is seeking teams of scientists using algorithms to design new therapeutic antibodies, to form and fund a start-up company. AION Labs, a coalition of Israeli, European, and American pharmaceutical and technology companies, and BioMed X, a biomedical research institute in Germany connecting academic labs to industry, are sponsoring the crowd-sourcing competition.

AION Labs, formed just last week in Rehovot, Israel, is a collaboration of drug makers AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, and Teva, with the Israel Biotech Fund and Amazon Web Services. The coalition aims to encourage use of artificial intelligence and data science to design and develop new therapies, by creating and financing new enterprises commercializing these technologies. AION Labs expects these technologies will speed design and development of new treatments, minimize use of animals, and create therapies that better meet the precise molecular makeup of patients.

BioMed X, located at Heidelberg University, studies molecular, cell, and computational biology in projects sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. The institute does its work both on-site and through global crowd-sourcing with early-career researchers worldwide. BioMed X is a partner of AION Labs, also announced last week.

The AION Labs/BioMed X competition, called De Novo Computational Design of Therapeutic Antibodies, seeks proposals from research teams working in computational biology, bioinformatics, or antibody engineering. Many therapeutic antibodies today, say AION Labs and BioMed X, are derived from large existing protein libraries, using expensive and laborious processes that nonetheless don’t always result in working treatments.

Funding and facilities for start-up company

The sponsors are seeking proposals for a computational platform that allows for design of new antibodies to meet antigen structure and sequence specifications that bind to precise epitope, or antigen binding site, targets. And the sponsors encourage ideas that show more originality and go beyond today’s state-of-the art. Drug makers taking part in AION Labs are offering data to train A.I. models, as well as their industry expertise.

The sponsors expect proposal team leaders to be Ph.D. researchers with four to eight years of experience, and willing to develop into company founders. Team participants should be postdoctoral researchers or with completed Ph.D. studies and equivalent experience in computational biology, bioinformatics, or antibody engineering, as well as related disciplines.

The winning team will receive equity funding and facilities for a start-up company in Israel to develop and commercialize the researchers’ proposal. Funding includes $1 million for the first two years with an option for another $1 million to fund two more years. The new company will reside at AION Labs in Rehovot, including both wet and computational labs. The company will also receive guidance and mentorship from executives in the pharmaceutical and technology industries, venture capital, and academic science.

“We look forward to providing the chosen startup,” says AION Labs CEO Mati Gill in a BioMed X statement, “with our strong resources and mentorship as we work together to develop a cutting-edge solution to overcome the pharmaceutical challenge of selecting drug candidates from antibody sequences.”

Initial proposals are due by 12 Dec. 2021. From the first round of proposals, finalists will be chosen to attend a five-day innovation boot camp, 30 Jan. to 3 Feb. 2022. At the session, finalists will present their finished proposals to a jury, which will select the winning team.

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in Pfizer.

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