from MIT Sloan News

by Edward Mason

The pharmaceutical industry’s traditional plodding path for discovering drugs can cost billions of dollars, require more than a dozen years from concept to consumer, and in the end result in a product with a jaw-dropping price tag.

Enter twoXAR, a Palo Alto, California, startup that hopes to apply artificial intelligence to big data to reduce the timeline of drug discovery and cut health care costs. This week, the MIT-alumnus led company announced it has raised $10 million in Series A funding from SoftBank Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz Bio Fund, and OS Fund, a cash infusion allowing the company to build out its pipeline of drug candidates and accelerate the development of existing ones.

“We’re moving stepwise up the curve of credibility,” said Andrew M. Radin, twoXAR co-founder and chief marketing officer.“This allows us to really scale up the company.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration drug approval process is arduous with no guarantee of success at its conclusion. Researchers may spend years and billions of dollars testing drugs they believe are strong candidates to treat a specific disease, only to be wrong in the end. Founded in 2014, twoXAR (pronounced two-CZAR) uses artificial intelligence to analyze large existing biomedical datasets to reduce from possibly millions to a handful the number of drug candidates that would most effectively treat a specific disease.

“AI enables us to build this drug portfolio,” Radin, MBA ’14, said. “The drug portfolio looks like a normal drug portfolio; it’s just that we’re able to do it faster and cheaper.”

Last year, Radin said the company made strides toward proving their concept and signing pharmaceutical partners. In March, twoXAR announced the results of its artificial intelligence-driven approach to identify 10 drug candidates to treat liver cancer. The data analysis was done in less than one month, and one candidate stood out as killing liver cancer cells with high selectivity.

A month earlier, the company signed a strategic research collaboration with Santen Pharmaceuticals to discover new drug candidates to treat glaucoma. Santen would develop and commercialize the drug candidates resulting from their collaboration.

The deal with Santen, which focuses on ophthalmology, fits with twoXAR’s vision. Rather than attempt to find a cure for a specific disease, twoXAR concentrates on broad therapeutic areas — oncology, dermatology, ophthalmology, and immunology — that provide the clearest path for its discoveries to reach human clinical trials, Radin said.

Also last year, Radin said the company built out its expertise base. In November, the company launched an advisory board that included MIT Sloan alumnus Judy Lewent, a former Merck chief financial officer.

Looking ahead, twoXAR plans to launch six to eight new internal drug discovery programs over the next year, a figure Radin said the company hopes to repeat each of the next three years. Those internal drug discovery programs can be spun out into new companies, in which case twoXAR would own a portion and an investor would financially support any additional study performed by that company, Radin said. TwoXAR would like to have roughly the same number of external drug partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.

When asked if there’s industry resistance to its methods, Radin said twoXAR works essentially the same as any scientist.

“We just can collect more data and come up with a conclusion,” Radin said, “a conclusion with a higher confidence and one that’s extremely repeatable.”