Palo Alto-based biotech startup Inceptive has raised $100 million in a new funding round led by NVIDIA's NVentures and Andreessen Horowitz. The company aims to use artificial intelligence to design novel biological molecules for vaccines, therapeutics, and other treatments.
Founded by former Google AI researcher Jakob Uszkoreit, Inceptive is developing an AI platform that can design unique mRNA sequences. This "biological software" technology allows Inceptive to rapidly create and test new molecular structures in the lab. The startup then licenses successful molecules to pharmaceutical partners to develop into new medicines.
Inceptive's technology builds on recent advances in generative AI pioneered by Uszkoreit and his colleagues. He is widely credited for coming up with the idea of focusing on attention which was the basis of their landmark 2017 paper on transformer models, and laid the groundwork for the current generation of AI technology. Now, Inceptive is applying similar techniques to generate biological data instead of text or images.
While software programs have traditionally operated in the realm of coding executable instructions for computers, Inceptive aims to extend this paradigm to the cellular level. "We want to do that but with cells in your body," Uszkoreit said. This ambition aligns with a larger trend in the pharmaceutical industry. Big Pharma and investors are increasingly placing bets on AI-driven companies to accelerate drug discovery and development.
Inceptive licenses its uniquely designed mRNA molecules to pharmaceutical companies to develop medicines and put through clinical trials. The four-year-old startup has already partnered with a major European pharmaceutical company to develop a new infectious disease mRNA vaccine. This collaborative approach adds a layer of commercial versatility to the startup, enabling it to serve as a "horizontal capability to any entity developing mRNA and later RNA medicines".
Investors are betting big on startups like Inceptive that are merging biotech and AI. This funding round, which tripled Inceptive's valuation to over $300 million, included Obvious Ventures, NVIDIA, and Andreessen Horowitz. It reflects rising confidence that AI can accelerate drug discovery.
Importantly, the funding also grants Inceptive access to NVIDIA's cutting-edge computing platforms, including its latest chips. This is noteworthy because with the existing chip shortage, compute power is increasingly a limiting factor in the development of sophisticated AI algorithms.
As AI continues to make inroads into pharmaceuticals, it's crucial to note that the lion's share of time and cost in drug development still lies in clinical trials, rather than in the design of molecules. It remains to be seen if Inceptive's computer-generated compounds will prove safe and effective in humans. But its partnerships with top drug companies suggest its AI approach holds promise.
Uszkoreit's career trajectory is emblematic of a larger trend: the departure of AI talent from big tech companies to launch their own ventures. Having previously worked on AI research at Google, Uszkoreit was instrumental in pioneering AI technologies, including those that led to Google DeepMind's AlphaFold. He recently appeared as a guest of the No Priors podcast where he elaborated on Inceptive's unique approach, and shared his perspectives on promising research directions and next generation model architectures.
With its new war chest, Inceptive plans to expand its AI platform and molecular design capabilities. As pharmaceutical AI generates buzz, Inceptive and its peers race to capitalize on a projected $50 billion market opportunity. Success could mean faster, cheaper drug development—and better healthcare worldwide.