This biotechnology company is visualizing proteins in motion to spark a “pragmatic, low-risk revolution in the way drugs are discovered.”
CEO: Sanjiv Patel, M.D.
Based: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Clinical focus: Previously undruggable, frequently mutated oncogenes
The scoop: Relay Therapeutics is tapping into technological advances such as room-temperature X-ray crystallography and the boom in computational power to visualize proteins in motion. Because proteins move constantly inside cells, Relay’s A-list founders and investor Third Rock Ventures think showing motion—rather than using static images—will reveal new ways to treat diseases. The first step is to go after the many frequently mutated oncogenes the industry is yet to drug.
What makes Relay Fierce: On one, highly superficial level, Relay is an unremarkable startup. As CEO Sanjiv Patel, M.D., puts it, “This is not a crazy concept. It’s not a new modality that is previously untested. We make small molecules.”
On every other level, it is among the most ambitious companies in biotech. A conversation with Patel is dotted with phrases that time will prove to be either prescient or hubristic.
Few CEOs claim their biotech is ushering in the “dawn of the new generation of drug discovery.” Or that they “will deliver transformational medicines in oncology, and then stepwise change the world in every other therapeutic area.” Or that a new hire is “a statement of how strongly this company is going to change the industry.” Patel does this and more.
“I know that Relay will be just as big as the company I came from,” is perhaps his most bullish statement. The company Patel left to join Relay? Allergan. Yes, $75 billion market-cap Allergan.
Anyone with enough front can make such statements. And, as Patel acknowledges, the history of in silico drug discovery contains plenty of examples of companies overpromising and underdelivering. What sets Relay apart is that the track records of the people who set it up—and those it has attracted since then—suggest it will have a good crack at hitting it out of the park in the way Patel foresees.
Relay broke cover last summer by disclosing a $57 million series A round backed by Third Rock and D. E. Shaw Research. The list of co-founders included Mark Murcko, Ph.D., the man Barry Werth called the “most pivotal” hire in the early days of Vertex in his book "The Billion-Dollar Molecule." Vertex drove and defined the still-ongoing era of structure-based drug design using static images. Murko serves as CSO of Relay.
David Shaw, Ph.D., another co-founder, was dubbed “King Quant” by Fortune for his work on Wall Street before deciding to apply his computer science skills to molecular dynamics. That led to the creation of D. E. Shaw Research and the supercomputers that power Relay. By Patel’s reckoning, Relay has “about 100 times the computing power of the rest of the pharmaceutical industry put together.”
Patel arrived from Allergan in April and was joined three months later by Deborah Palestrant, Ph.D., who swapped a post at Editas—“the most innovative company in the world,” in Patel’s words—for a chance to drive forward corporate development at Relay.
The executives are part of a 40-person team working to build a pipeline that validates their belief that seeing proteins in motion will reveal ways to hit previously undruggable targets. This work has advanced swiftly over the past year.
Relay now has four programs, all in oncology. Two of the programs are racing each other toward the clinic. Patel thinks they will reach human testing in early 2019, around which time Relay will start to open up more about its programs.
For now, fearing the release of details will “spark into life a whole new class of molecules,” Relay is only talking about the programs in broad terms. When Relay does disclose more, Patel thinks it will set protein motion on a path that leads to it becoming the way most companies do drug discovery.
“We've taken targets that no one has drugged before, that are hard, that the industry has always wanted to solve and get drugs to and that we know that if we can find a solution to will have huge clinical impact, and we have solved the problems,” Patel said. “The programs are not small. We’re not talking about niche opportunities. These programs have single-agent opportunities that are significant; they have combination opportunities that are significant.”
The programs will drive Relay into its next stage of development of a company by getting it into the clinic and by validating protein motion to outsiders. Relay plans to use the validation to land partnerships that expand use of its platform to therapeutic areas other than cancer, although it hasn’t completely ruled out branching out through internal activities. One of Relay’s current cancer programs has implications in neuroscience.
In whatever way Relay proceeds, it is going to need more money as the cancer programs near the clinic and it enacts a strategy that calls for a significant increase in headcount over the next 18 months. Some of the money will go toward clinical activities.
Relay will use the rest of the cash to stay ahead of an anticipated tidal wave of competitors. Patel thinks the Fierce 15 winners 15 years from now will all be based around protein motion. As that will neutralize what makes Relay different today, Patel is plotting a strategy designed to ensure it gains advantages in other areas.
The strategy is built on applying machine learning to data.
“We create lots and lots of terabytes of data around structural biology and crystal structure and how virtual compounds interact with them and how molecules best fit the target,” Patel said. “Just the weight of data we have will allow us to continually learn and refine the algorithms to design ... better and better drugs quicker and quicker. And that's why we believe we’ll always be ahead of this industry.”
Today, the idea that machine learning will move the needle in drug discovery is as unproven as the prospect of protein motion changing the whole industry. But given the talent and resources at Relay’s disposal, if any company is to turn the hyped ideas into game-changing processes, it might well be this one.
Whether Relay succeeds or falls short will be hugely significant for the company, its investors, patients and—if Patel is right—maybe even for the entire industry. But for the purposes of the Fierce 15, the outcome is less important than the intent. Not all ideas in biotech work out. What is important is a willingness to challenge the boundaries of the possible. Relay has that in spades.
Investors: Third Rock Ventures and D. E. Shaw Research