Mayo Clinic startup raises series A round for AI-driven R&D

Mayo Clinic and Nference have created an AI-driven R&D startup. The biotech, Qrativ, is starting life with $8.3 million in series A funds, access to its founders’ AI platform and clinical data and a remit to identify treatments for rare diseases.

Qrativ, like other data-driven drug R&D shops such as Biovista and NuMedii, is using its platform to identify new uses for existing molecules. But rather than repurpose candidates that have advanced deep into the clinic, Qrativ wants to team up with biopharma companies early in development. The idea is to identify diseases and subsets of patients in which a molecule is likely to work before the developer commits considerable resources to clinical trials.

The service is intended to lead to the establishment of an in-house pipeline at Qrativ. Companies that want to take their drugs forward in the newly-identified indications and subpopulations can do so, drawing on the clinical trial capabilities of Mayo Clinic if needed. But if the company deems the new opportunity to be outside of its areas of interest, Qrativ may propose a licensing deal that gives it the right to take the drug forward.

Matrix Capital Management, Matrix Partners and Mayo Clinic have put up $8.3 million to get the startup off the ground and support its ambition to build a pipeline of rare disease drugs.

The success or otherwise of the planned pipeline rests on the accuracy of Qrativ’s prediction model. Multiple startups claim they can identify new uses for existing drugs by applying algorithms and computing power to the scientific literature. Yet, despite some of these companies knocking around for years, the forecast wave of systematically repurposed molecules is yet to materialize.

Qrativ’s claim for the crown is backed up by the credentials of its parent companies. Nference is a young company but in serial tech entrepreneur Murali Aravamudan it has a founder and CEO who has built successful businesses. 

Other startups have technologies comparable to the part of Qrativ’s platform that scours medical literature for drug-target matches. But Qrativ’s access to Mayo Clinic’s expertise and clinical data sets it apart. Qrativ hopes this will enable it to make breakthroughs where others have faltered.  

“Our core technology based on a neural network ensemble identifies nascent drug-disease, drug-gene and other therapeutically-relevant associations from the vast biomedical literature. The spatio-temporal signals are triangulated with real-world phenotypic and molecular evidence amassed from systemic and longitudinal patient care,” Aravamudan said in a statement. 

Aravamudan is serving as CEO of Qrativ. The startup has also named Mayo Clinic’s Andrew Badley, M.D., as CMO and Nference cofounder Venky Soundararajan as CSO. Soundararajan spent a short time at Vertex in between leaving academia and setting up Nference. 

The recent uptick in interest in drug repurposing, the popularity of which ebbs and flows, could give the team a tailwind. Astellas Pharma has struck a clutch of deals since making repurposing a cornerstone of its R&D strategy in 2015. And Allergan, Sanofi and Takeda have signed deals with NuMedii, Recursion Pharmaceuticals and BioXcel, respectively, over the past two years.

This activity shows there is both Big Pharma demand for repurposing services that can unlock the full value of molecules and a growing pool of startups trying to meet this need. The outstanding question is whether the current wave of projects will deliver on the promise of the technology.