To help unlock the next great leaps in biotechnology—potentially radical changes afforded to us through advancements in artificial intelligence, robotics and sheer computing power—Dror Berman believes the startup companies making those advances will need a more comprehensive form of support that combines the financial, entrepreneurial and technical.
Those breakthroughs have the power to transform the industry in a variety of lasting ways, he says, and are driven by the advent of high-resolution data as well as the abilities to digest and act upon it at scale.
To chase these “super evolutions,” as he describes them, Berman helped co-found the portfolio investment firm Innovation Endeavors in 2010 with Google co-founder Eric Schmidt. The enterprise announced its third fund last June, setting aside $333 million to invest in transformative technologies.
Innovation Endeavors employs an ecosystem-based funding model in which new startups are surrounded by an international group of academic and industry partners, so they can draw from their expertise while they develop their ideas. It's a model the firm has previously used in the cybersecurity and agricultural fields; now, it's latest initiative is called Deep Life, tasked with the goal of decoding and coding biology.
“We've been excited about the many changes that have happened over this past decade, mostly in computer science, thanks to machine learning and the ability to process large amounts of data,” Berman told FierceMedTech. “But there are advancements in engineering as well—including in automation and CRISPR editing, which essentially allows us to interact directly with living organisms.”
“Ultimately, we believe there is a convergence coming,” he said. “We're really starting to see it now. That will allow for the creation of a new type of company—ones which would be built somewhat differently, and intersect the two fields of computer science and life sciences—and would challenge the old paradigms in therapeutics, diagnostics and industrial life sciences.”
To start, Deep Life is linking up with the Danish dermatology company LEO Pharma as well as the Mount Sinai Health System to provide its startups with access to scientific insight and proprietary data sets. Others include the Clalit Health Services & Research Institute, based in Israel, and Novozymes, which manufactures industrial enzymes and microorganisms for a range of applications.
In addition, the philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures, founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, will help provide a societal perspective on scientific development and assist companies that may be too early in their research to be considered traditionally investable—while entrepreneurs and academics such as the computational biologist Aviv Regev, faculty chair of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, will lend their expertise.
“But we hope and believe that this will go beyond investing,” Berman said. Together, this support network will provide new companies feedback on their products and help them identify market needs and potential partners. In return, they’re granted access to emerging tech and talent.
Some of Innovation Endeavors’ previous life science investments include former Fierce 15 winner Freenome, which is using AI to pan blood samples for early, molecular signs of cancer.
Elsewhere, the firm has been supporting the synthetic biology outfit Bolt Threads, which develops proteins that imitate spider silk, and Karius, maker of a high-throughput liquid biopsy robot that sequences patient samples to spot pathogen DNA.
Other companies have included the genetic test company Color, virtual reality and minimally invasive surgery robot surgery developer Vicarious Surgical and stroke detection software programmer Viz.ai.
The largest company in Innovation Endeavors’ life science camp is probably Zymergen, which brought in a mammoth $400 million series C round last December.
The funding—led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund alongside financing from Goldman Sachs and Hanwha Asset Management—will be used to double the capacity of the company’s synthetic biology contract manufacturing platform as well as allow it to begin commercializing its own products, which it says are aimed at improving the “global quality of life and population health.”
Zymergen uses AI and automated lab systems to genetically engineer microbes that produce a specific product, with applications in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, chemicals and materials.
But to seek out new blood, Innovation Endeavors is holding its first Deep Life pitch day for prospective startups, set for May 30 in Palo Alto, California, with submissions due by May 1.