Sanofi makes $270M bet that a startup’s AI tech can boost its cancer drug R&D


Sanofi wants to see how digital technologies can improve its cancer drug research and it’s committing $270 million to artificial intelligence and precision medicine startup Owkin to begin a multi-drug alliance.

Under the deal, Sanofi will use Owkin’s technology to find new biological indicators of cancer that could be targets for cancer drugs. The Paris-based pharma giant will then build models that could predict response to treatment. Sanofi is making a $180 million equity investment in Owkin, plus a payment of $90 million for the three-year alliance. Owkin is also in line to receive additional research and milestone payments.

Owkin, which maintains dual headquarters in Paris and New York, has stated it believes medical research should be collaborative while also maintaining patient privacy, and it has developed technology to achieve those goals. The company takes a “federated learning” approach to data analysis.

The universe of cancer patient data is comprised of information housed in multiple places and in multiple formats. Rather than bringing those data into a single database for Owkin to analyze, the company deploys its machine-learning algorithms to the data sources. The data remain local and private, and the algorithms are able to learn from them. After they’ve learned, those algorithms return to a central location. The same algorithms then can be sent to other locations, where they continue their learning. Anna Huyghues-Despointes, Owkin’s head of strategy, told MedCity News last year that the federated learning technology allows researchers to collaborate on a project without having to aggregate data at a specific place.

Owkin’s approach has enabled the company to build a global network of decentralized data sets. Sanofi aims to tap into this resource as it develops and tests its cancer drugs. The agreement with Owkin covers four types of cancer: non-small cell lung cancer, triple negative breast cancer, mesothelioma, and multiple myeloma.

“Owkin’s unique methodology, which applies AI on patient data from partnerships with multiple academic medical centers, supports our ambition to leverage data in innovative ways in R&D,” Arnaud Robert, Sanofi executive vice president and chief digital officer said in a prepared statement. “We are striving to advance precision medicine to the next level and to discover innovative treatment methods with the greatest benefits for patients.”

Owkin was co-founded in 2016 by former oncologist Thomas Clozel and Gilles Wainrib, a computer scientist and professor at the Ecole Normale Supérierue in Paris. On its website, Owkin said that the Sanofi equity investment opens its Series B round of financing, which now brings the startup into “unicorn” status—companies valued at $1 billion or more. Owkin has stretched out its financing rounds before. It began its Series A financing in 2018 with $11 million. That round topped out last year at $70 million.

Image by Flickr user Ed Uthman via a Creative Commons license

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