Revolutionary Innovations in Medicine Propelled by AI and Cross-Industry Collaboration
How Teva is helping Israel’s AION Labs to transform the way big pharma works
Founded in Israel and working with some of the leading scientific minds in the world, AION Labs aims to revolutionize the world of healthcare by bringing pharma companies, scientists, academics, technology leaders and investors together to transform drug discovery and development.
Whether it's delivering insights into the way diseases work or discovering, developing and bringing new drugs to market, the aim of AION Labs and its partners is to harness the capability of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to change the ways we innovate groundbreaking new medicines and bring hope to patients who currently suffer with untreated or undertreated conditions.
“Our mission is to help empower scientists to discover new drugs and develop them in a faster, cheaper, much more precise manner with less failure rate,” says Mati Gill, CEO AION Labs.
Currently it can take up to 15 years and billions of dollars of investment to bring a new drug to market. Optimizing the process using AI technology could be a game changer in the industry.
How does it work?
Breaking with the traditional industrial model where companies compete and work in secret, AION Labs brings together pharmacy giants Teva, AstraZeneca, Merck and Pfizer, backed by venture capital firm Israel Biotech Fund, strategic partners Amazon Web Services, Amiti Ventures and German independent research institute BioMed X, with the support of the Israeli government through the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA).
Key challenges facing the healthcare sector are identified by the consortium and launched into the scientific and technology communities. The individuals who propose the most creative, innovative and potentially effective solutions are invited to AION Labs for an intensive 5-day bootcamp, then organized into teams where they work alongside AION mentors from all partners. At the end of the week, each team presents its solutions to the Investment Committee, and the winning team leader is invited to form a start-up company to develop the solution and launch it into the market. Funded by AION Labs for the first two years, further funding may be available for an additional two years if necessary.
Shiri Netser, Teva’s Senior Director of Corporate Development, was one of the founders of the AION Labs consortium and explains that this is a first-of-its-kind collaboration.
“It’s a unique situation for four major pharma companies to form a partnership and create this sort of synergy. We are in this together, we are not competing, we are all benefitting from our joint capabilities and coming together to try to create solutions that will benefit the entire healthcare community.”
Supported by a grant from the Israel Innovation Authority, this is a global project built in Israel, the home of Teva global corporate headquarters, and part of the company’s ethos to develop and support the communities it works in. “We’re building an important Israeli ecosystem that has the possibility to be very influential,” says Shiri.
Bridging the gap between academia and industry
Dr Christian Tidona, founder and Managing Director of the BioMed X Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, explains the importance of bridging the gap between academia and industry to provide better practical solutions for global healthcare.
“There’s a lot of research going on worldwide within academia but not much of what is produced ends up in the pharma industry as something that ultimately will help patients. This is generally because academic science is driven by curiosity and not by the market so it’s a solution looking for a problem to be solved.”
The AION Labs approach turns this on its head and works with the pharma industry to define the need first, which is then articulated to the scientific community, “channeling creativity into something that has a market,” says Dr Tidona.
And with the consortium’s support, the innovators can work on their projects free from worry about resources.
Mati Gill explains. “Basically, we say to them, you bring your domain expertise, whether it's from life sciences or machine learning, bring your ideas, bring your talents and we'll support you to do the rest. You will be given pre-seed funding, as well as the guidance and expertise of the pharma companies to be able to build new models in the AI space.”
Enabling scientist entrepreneurs to make new discoveries
For Mati and the team, it’s all about helping scientist entrepreneurs develop new technologies and bring them into the pharmaceutical discovery and development space.
One of those scientist entrepreneurs is Dr Kashif Sadiq. Originally from London, he studied physics at Cambridge, followed by a PhD in molecular biophysics at University College London.
After working in several different institutions across Europe, he came to the European Molecular Biology Lab (EMBL) in Germany, innovating in the space of protein design. When AION Labs posted a challenge in this area, he applied to take part and won, launching DenovAI Biotech as one of the consortium’s first startups.
DenovAI Biotech plans to develop an AI-enabled computational biophysics platform to discover new antibodies and mini-proteins that can create more effective drugs for conditions that are currently undertreated. If it works, it could cut drug discovery timelines from months to days. Dr Sadiq is excited about the prospect.
“The general use of proteins as medicines and therapies is increasing and antibodies now exist to treat several kinds of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, leukemia, neurodegenerative diseases and more,” he explains. “But many also have side-effects. We plan to develop different small proteins and antibodies that are even more effective at treating such conditions.”
Beyond this, the platform will potentially be able to make reliable drug candidates available for virtually any disease, which would be a game changer in the industry. “This would break the herd mentality of all pharmaceutical companies going down the same tried and tested paths – because we would provide them with the tools to discover drugs in completely new areas. That would be our biggest contribution, to provide that foundational technology.”
Liyam Chitayat, who started a BSc in chemistry and biology at the age of 12, and at 19 is completing her MSc research on computational microbiome engineering, took part in the fourth challenge.
“Just witnessing how an extremely efficient and supportive team can be formed in just a few days is really something that speaks to how well this program is designed,” she says. “It’s a fascinating convergence point, where everyone is sitting around the same table, putting ego aside and trying to solve these pressing problems.”
She is now starting a PhD program in computational systems biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a Hertz fellow but hopes to return to AION Labs one day. “This is a great resource, bringing people together and hearing different voices, and I really want to be part of it.”
Pooling knowledge for the greater good
Bringing everyone together is also a great benefit when it comes to pooling knowledge.
Dr Tidona clarifies. “One of the fundamental problems of AI is that you need very large amounts of high-quality research data and no pharma company by itself is big enough to have sufficient data. In this unique situation, four companies pool data sets and make them available to our startups, which solves a big problem and is a huge advantage in building our models.”
AION Labs is well placed, Mati Gill believes, to help answer some of the immense challenges facing global healthcare today – affordability, access and how to bring breakthrough therapeutics to patients.
“We want to help to build companies that can bring new breakthrough drugs to the market for diseases such as neurodegenerative conditions and cancer. We believe AI and machine learning capabilities will play a significant role in that.”
His dream is to build new startups that will continue to grow, using AI technologies that will propel the whole industry forward. “All of our scientific and commercial success is ultimately translated into doing good for people, everything we are working on will benefit humanity.”
Ultimately, it’s about learning, about discovering. “Teva is not investing in this to see the monetary return, we are not a venture capitalist (VC),” explains Shiri. “Instead, we want to generate new technologies that both we and the entire industry can benefit from.”
“AION Labs has created a unique situation that is very special”, says Kashif. “It’s saying here are all the gaps and we’re going to create companies to address those gaps. And the synergy potential for all those companies is also amazing, there will be emergent ideas that nobody’s ever thought of before. And it’s hard to predict what they are because they haven't emerged yet, but I'm pretty sure that that will happen, and that's going to be really exciting.”
Discover more about AION Labs and its upcoming challenges and meet some of the people involved
Find out more
- 3 Trends I’m Watching: Teva leaders share key trends in their area of interest
- Read about Teva’s work to bring medicines to patients in Chile’s remote communities
- Are you interested in the work that we do? Explore a career at Teva