Merck launches healthcare startup incubator for AI developers

Merck has begun taking applications for a new biotech accelerator program and is on the hunt for startups offering a special focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The Merck Digital Sciences Studio (MDSS) aims to start with 12 participants in the early stages of development, with the drugmaker pledging to provide direct investments—including up to $150,000 in convertible notes—plus credits for access to cloud computing resources through the Microsoft for Startups program.

The inaugural dozen startups will go on to launch pilot programs of their technologies in collaboration with Merck’s researchers, including those tasked with uncovering new, potentially therapeutic molecules and designers of clinical trials.

“The biopharmaceutical industry has only just started to harness the tremendous opportunity presented by emerging technological developments in AI and ML,” Fiona Marshall, Merck Research Laboratories’ senior vice president for discovery, preclinical and translational medicine, said in a statement

“The MDSS will provide a collaborative and entrepreneurial setting where scientists have access to the tools and expertise to fuel important innovations that advance drug discovery and development,” Marshall added.

The 10-month program itself is the result of a collaboration between the Big Pharma and its home state’s New Jersey Innovation Institute, which helps manage industry partnerships for the New Jersey Institute of Technology and will provide startup coaching and business connections.

MDSS is also backed by investments from the Merck Global Health Innovation Fund as well as Northpond Ventures and McKesson Ventures and will maintain offices in Newark and Cambridge, Massachusetts, with plans to accept six startups from each location.

“As digital transformation continues to redefine what’s possible in healthcare, startups are at the forefront of delivering new approaches and technologies to the industry,” said Sally Frank, global lead for health and life sciences at Microsoft for Startups, which will provide Azure cloud computing support. “Merck Digital Sciences Studio provides an onramp for startup founders to quickly bring their ideas to market with the strength of a global healthcare leader like Merck behind them.”