BenevolentAI bags $115M to fuel AI-enabled R&D push

BenevolentAI has raised $115 million to grow its AI-enabled drug development pipeline. The round moves the total raised by the company past the $200 million mark and values it at around $2 billion.

London-based BenevolentAI set out five years ago to use technology to analyze the growing sea of bioscience literature and generate insights into how to treat disease. Flying under the radar at first, BenevolentAI built a technology to realize its vision, leading to $100 million in financing and a 230-person phase 2 trial of a H3 receptor antagonist originally developed at Johnson & Johnson.

BenevolentAI is still enrolling patients in the phase 2 trial of Parkinson’s disease patients who suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness. But investors have seen enough in its progress to date to put up another big sum of money.

The latest round expands BenevolentAI’s previously Europe-skewed investor syndicate. Unidentified U.S. investors accounted for most of the cash. The rest came from existing investors, including Neil Woodford’s fund. Woodford participated in an earlier investment round alongside Lundbeck, Upsher-Smith Laboratories and Lansdowne Partners.

BenevolentAI will use the fresh funding to step up its drug development activities. The startup says it has begun more than 20 programs to date and now plans to significantly scale up its development activities. That will broaden in the therapeutic scope of BenevolentAI’s pipeline. The company is yet to share details of its indications of interest. But it has said it is looking at a mix of rare and major diseases, positioning it to take some programs deep on its own while bringing pharma on board to help with others.  

“Some of the indications that we're looking at now are rarer indications, so require a salesforce that is far more focused,” Ken Mulvany, founder and chairman of BenevolentAI, told CNBC. “When we’re looking at diseases that are more pervasive in society, that’s where pharma really comes into their own because they have the development expertise and marketing expertise to deliver those [drugs] to patients.” 

The success or otherwise of these programs will have implications beyond BenevolentAI. A growing pool of companies are working to show machines can accelerate therapeutic progress, either by finding new uses for existing drugs or addressing bottlenecks in the innovative R&D process. But the field is still waiting on a big success capable of dispelling skepticism.