Sanofi-partnered Recursion raises $13M for tech-enabled R&D drive

Recursion Pharmaceuticals has raised $12.9 million to scale up its computer-driven approach to drug development. The idea is to pull in phenotypic data from cellular images, build disease models and then feed in the effects of potential drug candidates to discover which compounds could treat a particular condition.

As with many tech-focused drug discovery shops, Recursion is initially looking to apply its approach to the repurposing of existing compounds, a model it claims has already enabled it to snag partnerships with three of the top 10 pharma companies, including Sanofi ($SNY). This approach allows Recursion to use data generated the first time an asset advanced down the pipeline to inform its own activities, giving it a head start as it tries to figure out which compounds are worth pursuing.

“We help our pharma partners identify new uses of their proprietary, high-value molecules,” Recursion CEO Chris Gibson said in a statement. “Combine that strategy with our big data skills and high-throughput biology expertise, and you have the potential to identify therapeutic agents for many diseases at a fraction of the cost.”

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Recursion is particularly interested in rare diseases, although it thinks its approach is also applicable to inflammation, infectious disease, oncology and any other indication suitable for cellular-level modelling. The approach, which grew out of work at the University of Utah, starts with high-content assays in human cells and high-throughput automated screening. Data from the assays are combined with information on compounds of interest and analyzed.

Gibson developed the underlying technology while working at Dean Li’s lab at the University of Utah. Although Gibson is new to biotech startups, Li, who co-founded Recursion with Gibson and serves as its CSO, has a track record of setting up companies. Li founded Hydra Biosciences, which has raised $95 million from groups including Abingworth and the VC wings of Eli Lilly ($LLY) and Medimmune, as well as Navigen Pharmaceuticals.

When Recursion came to raise money, Li and his colleagues looked to VC shops better known for their work in tech than biotech. In Lux Capital, which led the round, Data Collective and Ame Cloud Ventures, Recursion has gained backers with a growing interest in biotech. The trio previously hooked up to funnel $20 million into tech-enabled preclinical research shop Vium, née Mousera, and list virtual trial CRO Science 37, brain-mapping startup Inscopix and in silico CRISPR player Agenovir in their portfolios. A fourth investor, Epic Ventures, has also backed Exagen Diagnostics ($EXDX) and Q Therapeutics.

Obvious Ventures, the VC shop set up by Twitter ($TWTR) founder Evan Williams, and Wild Basin Investments, the other backers of the Series A, have less of a pedigree in life sciences.