Alphabet's quantum spinoff starts working with AstraZeneca, Sanofi to accelerate R&D

The Alphabet spinoff SandboxAQ has signed up AstraZeneca and Sanofi as users of its drug discovery and development tools. Fresh from raising $500 million, the startup has secured the big-name customers for a newly established biopharma molecular simulation division that aims to accelerate R&D.

Last year, Google’s parent company Alphabet spun off its quantum technology unit to form SandboxAQ. The startup, which grew out of work that Alphabet began in 2016, plans to run simulations on quantum computers, technologies that use the properties of quantum mechanics to solve problems too complex for today’s computers. For the time being, it relies on classical processing units. 

The simulations are applicable to problems across a range of industries. But SandboxAQ has selected biopharma as its proving ground and, like a long list of startups before it, is pitching its technology as the solution to the problems facing drug discovery and development. 

“Drug discovery, as we see it, is quite broken. It takes over a decade to develop a brand-new drug. It costs billions of dollars and the failure rate is just extraordinarily high,” Nadia Harhen, general manager for simulation and optimization at SandboxAQ, said in a video released by the company. “Most drugs fail at clinical stages, which are very, very expensive. And so we want to disrupt the entire process.” 

SandboxAQ has built a team that includes computational chemists, medicinal chemists and physicists to tackle the problems of drug R&D, resulting in methods designed to determine the quantum mechanical interactions between atoms and molecules, with AI models used for inferring predictions from the interactions. 

According to SandboxAQ, the approach can “dramatically” reduce the time, cost and risk of identifying promising compounds, make faster, more accurate predictions for lead generation and accelerate clinical trials. 

SandboxAQ is “really excited” about combining AI and quantum technology to get methods that “benefit from a problem statement but might not require it to be completely 100% clear and correct,” Adam Lewis, technical lead for simulation and optimization, said in the video. Such methods “benefit from some data but don't require a massive store,” Lewis added, which is important, because there “aren't that many known molecules with tagged information about them.”

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson described the startup as having “leapfrog technology” that could “significantly impact both preclinical and clinical development” of drugs. “We look forward to seeing how it could support us in delivering life-changing treatments to patients worldwide, faster,” Hudson added in the release.