Healx raises $56m as it targets rare diseases with AI
A $56million funding round is being announced today by Healx, the Cambridge company using artificial intelligence to find new treatments for rare diseases.
Dr Tim Guilliams, CEO and co-founder, told the Cambridge Independent yesterday that the money will enable it to double its headcount and launch an astonishing 40 new programmes.
Following a $10million Series A round last year, it puts the company on a path to achieve its ambitious mission of advancing 100 rare disease treatments towards the clinic by 2025.
“Originally we were not planning a Series B round this year, but we’ve had so much success with our programmes that we received inbound interest from large investors. We moved everything one year ahead,” revealed Tim. “Within 10 months, we had a signed terms sheet for another $56m so it’s a good place to be for a start-up.”
Led by one of Europe’s largest VC firms, Atomico, and joined by Intel Capital, Global Brain and btov Partners, the round also features all previous investors, including Balderton Capital, Amadeus Capital Partners and Jonathan Milner.
Healx, a finalist in the AI Company of the Year category at the Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards, is using the funding to launch its global Rare Treatment Accelerator programme.
“It allows us to double in size - headcount will go from 41 to 80 people - but more importantly it allows us to scale our programmes,” said Tim.
“So far we’ve launched 10 and have had enormous success - in fact, every programme worked. Now we’re going to launch another 40, which is quite a lot in drug discovery, but because we are using AI and machine learning, we don’t have a lab and everything is outsourced so it is easier to scale.”
Healx’ platform Healnet returns data-driven treatment predictions to cut the discovery-to-clinic timeline to just 24 months.
Integrating scientific literature, clinical trial results and proprietary data in the form of a biomedical knowledge graph, it highlights potential therapeutic relationships between drugs and diseases.
“We work in disease clusters,” explained Tim. “At the moment, we have a rare neurological cluster and a rare oncology cluster and we will launch two new clusters, which we’ll disclose later this year. Our AI and algorithms help us to select closely related diseases.
“There are 7,000 rare diseases and 95 per cent don’t have an approved treatment. If you were to try and address that therapeutic unmet need with a traditional drug discovery approach, which takes 10-15 years and $2billion-£3billion per drug, you would need $13trillion!
“The only realistic way of solving the rare disease challenge is by using existing drugs differently. It is much more cost effective.
“We combine existing drugs find new users for them and is incredibly effective.”
COO Kate Hilyard told the Cambridge Independent: “Our furthest ahead programme is in Fragile X, which we are hoping to take into clinical trials in 2020.
“Several of our other programmes have progressed through pre-clinical testing and we are looking at which ones we will take forward to the clinic.”
Fragile X syndrome is the leading genetic cause of autism and there are no approved treatments. Collaborating with the FRAXA Research Foundation, trials should launch early in the new year, and represent a validation of Healx’ approach.
Tim said: “It went very quickly and cheaply. An important aspect of our approach is we work hypothesis-free. We don’t do the traditional target-based drug discovery. We let our algorithms decide a) which diseases we are going to work on and b) which drugs are being predicted and matched, without biasing that process.
“With Fragile X, we had a number of synergistic combinations where the mode of action for the drug is completely new biology, which hasn’t been reported before.
“For Fragile X there have been about 40 trials and they have all failed, because everyone worked on the same druggable targets. Our algorithms were able to predict secondary mode of actions and pathways. The pre-clinical results were exceptional.
“This is part of what we’re really excited about with Healx - the ability to predict new treatments and new biology, but with drugs that are safe and that you can translate very quickly to the clinic.”
Irina Haivas, principal at Atomico and board member of Healx, said: “The current, expensive, trial-and-error-based model of drug discovery hasn’t changed in a century. And it especially fails rare disease patients.
"Fifty per cent of these patients are children, many living with highly debilitating symptoms. Healx has shown that doesn’t have to be the case, by combining AI with world-class pharmacological expertise and putting patients first. We believe that the new paradigm in drug discovery will emerge at the intersection of technology, data, and biology, and we’re confident that Healx's team is paving the way to a new gold standard in rare disease treatment discovery.
“We believe that the new paradigm in drug discovery will emerge at the intersection of technology, data, and biology, and we’re confident that Healx's team is paving the way to a new gold standard in rare disease treatment discovery.”
Irina Haivas, a former surgeon, joins existing board members, including co-founder and deputy chairman of Abcam Jonathan Milner; Shaun Grady, responsible for global business development at AstraZeneca; Suranga Chandratillake, from Balderton Capital; David Brown, co-founder of Crescendo Biologics and the man behind Viagra, and co-founder and chief executive Tim Guilliams.
In a statement announcing the funding, Tim added: “The size of this Series B financing, especially this quickly after our Series A round last year, is an endorsement of the value of our platform and the pace at which we have developed. It allows us to scale our impact with the launch of our Rare Treatment Accelerator programme and to progress into clinical trials.
“The trials for our fragile X treatments are just the start of the impact we believe our technology is capable of having on drug discovery. Rare diseases affect over 400 million patients worldwide.
“To date, it’s been families and patient groups who have had to become experts in the diseases affecting their loved ones and have often been the ones driving forward the efforts into finding new treatments. With our unique combination of in-house R&D, industry collaborations and now the Rare Treatment Accelerator, we look forward to supporting these groups in their mission.”