29 Nov Interview with Alex Zhavoronkov, CEO of Insilico Medicine – Speaker at PMWC 2018 Silicon Valley
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PMWC caught up with Alex Zhavoronkov, CEO of Insilico Medicine, the winner of PMWC’s 2015 Most Promising Company Competition to get an update on the company’s progress and tease out some advice for this year’s Company Showcase Competition contenders.
Alex told us that PMWC Silicon Valley 2015 was a landmark event in the company’s history and allowed their team to believe in themselves because it was a positive first test of investor appetite. Today, Alex looks at Insilico as the “Bell Labs for AI in healthcare” with more than 200 different projects that they are taking to proof of concept and then either licensing out or creating joint ventures around.
Company Update Highlights:
- Hired the top deep learning talent all over the world through hackathons and then trained them in bioinformatics.
- Launched several biomarkers developed using a new approach to AI, discovered a range of targets and molecules that are going through validation. Partnered with Life Extension, which launched two Insilico nutraceutical products. Currently capturing the effectiveness of these nutraceuticals using a system called Young.AI, available online. Over 65,000 people worldwide bought the nutraceuticals in first six months since launch.
- In 2017, NVIDIA selected Insilico Medicine as one of the Top 5 AI companies based on potential for social impact.
- Breakthrough at the end of 2015. Began using a new technique in deep learning first proposed by Ian Goodfellow,called Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) that allows “imagining” new objects with a specific set of characteristics. Coupled that with “reinforcement learning”, the technique used by Deep Mind to defeat the Go champion, to generate novel molecular structures with a desired set of characteristics.
- Published the first proofs of concept and quickly became popular in the pharma world.
- At JP Morgan 2016, met with top biotech investors and pharma executives. Met partners of Jim Mellon, the “British Warren Buffett”, who invested in Insilico and formed a separate company with Greg Bailey, who recently sold Medivation for $14.5 billion, and Declan Doogan, developer of Zoloft, Lipitor and Viagra. This all-star team is now developing molecules for age-related diseases generated entirely using AI.
- This same team led the most recent round of funding.
- Expanded into Asia with R&D centers in Taiwan, Republic of China and Hong Kong,as well as a JV in Korea, with a focus on cosmetics applications. Working on expanding into China.
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[et_pb_accordion_item title=”Q: Everyone is talking about the China’s big push into AI. What is happening in China? “]
A: China is the new Silicon Valley and the new frontier in human development. Everyone I know there is working on a startup. There is abundant capital to fuel growth and the large corporations are open to collaboration. Even some of the Big Pharma country heads in China are more innovative and have more freedom to operate than their counterparts in the open innovation departments at headquarters
In China people have a very different attitude toward personal data. For instance, when you buy a SIM card a picture is taken of you with your passport open. This really propels innovation much faster than in other geographies. The availability of large data sets and the freedom to work with the data also ignites innovation there. Tencent, the company that runs WeChat, Alibaba, Baidu, WuXi, BGI, is pushing very hard into AI with all the companies. And if AI is the new combustion engine and the data is the new electricity, China is the new epicenter of a data-driven economy.
However, the problem they will be facing soon is population specificity with some of the biomarkers and biological targets. When you use only Chinese data to build your predictors, classifiers and generators the systems will be very biased and may not work in European and other populations.
One of the technologies that will help Chinese companies as well as the rest of the world access human health data in a very ethical and secure way is blockchain. And it turns out that some of our projects in AI can help with that.
I am very happy to see that Chinese AI companies are among the participants of PMWC Silicon Valley 2018 and we are very much looking forward to establishing fruitful collaborations.
[/et_pb_accordion_item][et_pb_accordion_item title=”Q: To be the leader in AI you need a lot of data. You mentioned blockchain as one of the potential enablers of secure and efficient data acquisition. Can you elaborate? “]
A: Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology which can be used to enable individuals to take control of their life data. Currently there is a disconnect between individuals, medical institutions, laboratories, pharmaceutical companies and regulators. This disconnect is resulting in unnecessary regulatory barriers. Also individuals often don’t know what data they have, how useful it is and they don’t have the ability to sell or license their data to companies.
Our AI can show them how valuable their various types of data is– individually and in combination and in time. We published a seminar paper on this subject. We also partnered with one of the largest companies in blockchain technology called BitFury Group, which helps put entire governments on blockchain to develop the “Internet of human life data”. We formed a subsidiary called Longenesis, Limited, to unlock the value of multi-omics data and allow companies and researchers to gain access to the vast amounts of data from various population groups internationally.
We are also planning to introduce a new crypto token called LifePound which will allow people to profit from their data in more ways than was previously imaginable. In theory, governments be will able to introduce a universal basic income to people who regularly provide their life data for research purposes while encouraging them to pursue healthy lifestyles.
Longenesis may be one of the highest-impact projects in our portfolio. We already have the working prototype running on BitFury’s Exonum blockchaiin platform and data verification, quality control, trust rating and authentication system. It uses our deep learning systems and a small team is in Hong Kong working on the Longenesis “Life on Blockchain” pilot. We are presenting this system at conferences throughout Africa such as in Nigeria, South Africa, and Botswana to ensure that they are the early adopters when we launch. Africa may become the next “Saudi Arabia” of data and we may be able to improve millions of lives by empowering the people to take control of their life data, their health while gaining access to the most disruptive technologies: AI, blockchain and longevity biotechnology.
[/et_pb_accordion_item][et_pb_accordion_item title=”Q: At PMWC 2015 you were focused on aging research. Did your focus shift? “]
A: Absolutely not. Our bet on aging research really paid off. We treat aging as a disease that every living creature has and chronological age as the stage of this disease. When you train the deep neural networks to predict age using different data types: Pictures, blood tests, tissue-specific transcriptomes, proteomes, imaging data, microbiome, voice, videos, wearable data and even data from the electronic nose (a device that identifies the specific components of an odor and analyzes its chemical makeup to identify it), the Deep Neural Networks capture the most biologically-relevant features and you can integrate multi-omics data. You can later extract the most important features and use them as targets, or re-train the DNNs on the various diseases, when only a limited number of samples are available. We understand that a person today is different from the same person tomorrow. Essentially we are our age. During aging we change at every level. We now realize that age is probably the most important and universal feature every living being has. I already explained why age is important for training the Deep Neural Networks to predict age on multi-modal data and to developing biomarkers, and to understanding the population specificity of biomarkers, for example. When people think about personalized medicine, they think about the differences between people. But when you think about the same person at a different age as a different person, you get much more value from the data and understand the value of the various data types. A very simple example of this is cancer immune therapy. The person may respond very well to checkpoint inhibitors in his 50s and 60s, but may not respond to the same therapy in his 70s and 80s, due to immune senescence and changes in many other systems.
Even the blockchain projects at Insilico utilize aging research for life data quality control, authentication, and verification as well as for reconstruction of incomplete data sets. Age is the most important feature for us and we want to track it at every level. We regularly run hackathons at AgeNet.Net and other resources to build the predictors of both chronological and biological age using any data type. We also helped conceive MouseAge.org to do the same in mice and hopefully, in other animals. We want to see aging, feel aging, smell aging and build a virtual model of aging to be able to understand the effects of aging on disease.
[/et_pb_accordion_item][et_pb_accordion_item title=”Q: What are your long-term plans as a company, say 10 years out?”]
A: Our very long term plan is to achieve excellence in AI for longevity and to refocus from treatment to prevention. Think aging without losing. Ultimately we would like to make humans more resistant to age-associated changes and to changes in the environment. Making humans more age-resistant, radiation-resistant and infectious disease-resistant is the long term goal of the company.
[/et_pb_accordion_item][et_pb_accordion_item title=”Q: Do you have any advice for the 2018 PMWC contenders? “]
A: The jury is comprised of professional VCs. VCs like to hear about the technology, the business model, and the team as well as the go-to-market strategy. So it is really a straight forward VC pitch. PMWC Silicon Valley 2018 will be the highlight of a very transformative year in human history. And it looks like everyone in AI for healthcare will be there. If you’re interested in AI, you should be there and invite your friends to attend.
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