With artificial intelligence being treated as the next frontier of drug discovery and cell research, efforts to fine-tune the technology are expanding, which is music to the ears of investors that see dollar signs when they hear “machine learning.”
For the Northern California-based Deepcell, that value was reflected in a $73 million series B fundraising round announced Thursday. The company says its AI-powered platform differs from the rest of the field because of its ability to keep whole cells intact through examinations via microfluidics and high-resolution optics. The result is an ever-growing database of whole cells and their phenotype that can better inform biology and cellular mechanisms.
Co-founded by CEO Maddison Masaeli, the company was spun out of Stanford University and launched with a $20 million series A in December 2020. Since then, it’s been working to build out the atlas of cell images that will serve as the foundation of the technology and, according to the company, more than 1 billion images have been captured so far.
“A lot of work that has been done to quantify cell image and morphology has been limited to a handful of features,” Masaeli said in an interview. “But telling whether a cell is dying or the drug is affecting a cell is way more complicated than that.” She said Deepcell can fill that void to allow pathologists to have more readily available data on cell behavior.
Right now, the company is working with about 10 organizations in a beta-testing capacity, including the University of Zurich and the Translational Genomics Research Institute. Both are using the platform to more deeply analyze melanoma cells and how they might impact disease.
The company said the latest batch of funds will be used to grow Deepcell's staff, continue developing its platform and help “enable early commercial introduction.” Looking further down the road, Masaeli says the company would “entertain” potential partnerships that would involve developing its own drug candidates using its platform but emphasized Deepcell is a technology company first.
“We are definitely open to those conversations,” she said, while specifying that the company is open to a set of narrow, high-impact partnerships in the future.
Masaeli, a first-time CEO and woman of color in an industry that’s struggled to diversify, said the greatest obstacle she’s faced is overcoming an “irrational” stigma that is attached to female founders due to past failures—a not-so-subtle nod to Elizabeth Holmes. Nonetheless, she’s found the industry still rewards passion and experience.
“There’s a lot of value still to authenticity and integrity,” she said.
The series B fundraising round was led by Koch Disruptive Technologies with backing from new investors Bridger Healthcare, Horizons Ventures and Casdin Capital.