Boehringer bets $509M on Phenomic’s tumor-targeting tech, as AI biotech plans for busy year

Phenomic AI has been keeping a low profile since launching in October 2020 with $6 million. But that’s set to change, with a new partnership jumpstarting what’s expected to be a busy 2024. 

The Canadian company is teaming up with Boehringer Ingelheim on a target identification collaboration with more than $500 million at stake, including $9 million in upfront cash. In an interview with Fierce Biotech, Phenomic CEO Girish Aakalu, Ph.D., wouldn’t disclose how many targets the biotech is on the hook for, only confirming that “the terms are contingent on delivery as they always are.” 

The targets will take on the tumor stroma, a complex structure made up of connective tissue that broadly helps tumors to stay intact. Cancer cells rely on stroma as both a defensive shield from the immune system's counterattack and a bridge to other parts of the body that can help feed the tumor. Phenomic and Boehringer both hypothesize that drugging sites in the stroma directly could spur a new class of cancer therapies. 

Phenomic believes its single-cell RNA computing platform, dubbed scTx, will be the key that unlocks these targets. Aakalu said the platform not only provides a high-resolution glimpse at the stroma but uses significant statistical power to pull out valuable insights about the biology that can result in new therapeutic targets and, ultimately, drugs. 

The biotech’s dataset now includes some 24 million cells, the CEO added. From there, targets are tested against a suite of in-house in vitro and in vivo assays. What Boehringer ultimately receives are targets that are validated and put into context, based on data produced by the platform. 

Target identification pacts are just the tip of the iceberg, however, with more to come in the months ahead. Phenomic is advancing its own internal drug candidate aimed at CTHRC1, a relatively new gene first identified in 2005 that is associated with solid tumors. It means Phenomic is joining the growing ranks of AI and machine learning companies like Recursion, Exscientia and Benevolent AI, which are also drug developers. 

“Our intent is to be a therapeutics company, but one with a platform that's powerful enough that we can help others as well,” Aakalu said. When asked about the mixed clinical track record of some AI companies to date, the CEO said the proof is always going to be in the experimentation of targets or molecules generated by machine learning. 

“What I can say is that novel targets that we've identified have seemed to prove themselves out so far, which is exciting for us and hopefully for patients in the future,” he said. 

The full pipeline is still under wraps, but more is set to be revealed in 2024. That includes more deals like the one announced Wednesday, Aakalu previewed. As for available cash, Aakalu said the company wasn’t fundraising yet but would be soon.