With an artificial intelligence-powered platform for biomedical research, Toronto’s BenchSci has created a name for itself on a global scale, attracting the attention of big pharma companies and major investors.
Sixteen of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies use BenchSci’s tech, including Eli Lilly, Sanofi, Moderna, and AstraZeneca.
Now, the startup has secured $63 million CAD in Series C capital to “expedite” the reach of its technology around the world.
“It’s very absurd to think that a salesperson has more software tools to augment their work than a scientist that is working on solving the hardest problems known to most people.”
The all-equity and primary capital round was led by longtime BenchSci investor Inovia Capital, through its growth fund, and United States-based TCV.
“They taught computer[s] how to be a biologist, to sort through all that information and make this whole industry work better,” Inovia Partner Dennis Kavelman said in an interview. “It just resonates so clearly as an application for machine learning and artificial intelligence that you can really see how it’s [going to] make things better.”
BenchSci uses machine learning to “target inefficiencies and unnecessary spend” in preclinical scientific research, with the goal of helping scientists and pharmaceutical companies to expedite drug discovery. The idea is to use machine learning to help researchers find reliable antibodies based on data from scientific papers.
The company’s ultimate goal is to bring novel medicine to patients 50 percent faster by the year 2025.
“Historically no one has invested in technology and software tools for scientists, who we see as heroes,” said BenchSci CEO Liran Belenzon.
“It’s very absurd to think that a salesperson has more software tools to augment their work than a scientist that is working on solving the hardest problems known to most people,” Belenzon lamented. “So we are fixing that.”
Belenzon claimed that the industry standard meant BenchSci was helping to create a new category, leading to a hard time raising capital when the startup was founded in 2015.
BenchSci brought in some seed capital shortly after its founding, with Real Ventures and Golden Ventures making early bets on the company. It was after Golden Ventures led a $2.5 million seed round in 2017 that Inovia Capital first came into the picture.
Inovia Capital led a $10 million Series A round in 2018 and, after that, financing and investor interest increased. Google’s AI-focused venture fund, Gradient Ventures, also took part in that round. And, like Inovia Capital, Gradient has invested in each round of BenchSci financing since then.
The latest round brings BenchSci’s total funding to date to $123 million. In addition to Inovia Capital and TCV, Belenzon told BetaKit that all BenchSci’s Series B investors (except for Real Ventures) invested in the Series C round. Those investors include Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative (VCCI) – backed Northleaf Capital Partners, Gradient Ventures, and Golden Ventures.
With a focus on growth-stage companies, TCV has made some notable bets on Canadian tech recently. It led Trulioo to a $2 billion valuation after the company secured $476 million CAD in Series D capital, and TCV led the $114 million round in Wealthsimple that capitulated it to a $1.4 billion valuation (Wealthsimple has since reached a $5 billion valuation).
According to Kavelman, this investment is a doubling down on BenchSci by Inovia Capital. It is a familiar strategy the company has adopted across its portfolio over the past several years.
The decision to do so with BenchSci came after Kavelman (a former Research In Motion/BlackBerry exec) joined BenchSci’s board of directors last year. The move was part of a ‘bulking up’ of the startup’s board and executive team as it looked to accelerate growth. Other recent board appointees include Gradient Ventures board partner Bonita Stewart, who joined in August.
Kavelman’s connection to BenchSci actually dates back to before he joined the board and before Inovia Capital first invested in the company.
Kavelman helped create Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) in 2012, and it was at the accelerator that BenchSci CEO Belenzon first met his co-founders, Tom Leung, David Chen, and Elvis Wianda, in 2015.
What started as Ph.D. students working on a project exploring the use of machine learning to analyze scientific papers has become a 210 employee company, with 4,500 research centres and 49,000 scientists from around the world using its tech.
“When we looked at canvassing the landscape in and around the [drug discovery] R&D process, we didn’t find … tech solutions as innovative as BenchSci,” Matt Brennan, general partner at TCV, told BetaKit. “More importantly, BenchSci starts where it all begins. They enable scientists in the preclinical setting to design and think about what drugs to make and ultimately apply that into experimentation. And it’s really an important point to make sure that we get right, because otherwise hundreds of millions, if not billions, [of dollars] can be wasted downstream for some of these pharma companies.”
It’s that focus on the early stages of drug research that BenchSci sees as its differentiator.
Canada alone is home to notable tech companies in the drug discovery space, including AbCellera and Softbank-backed Deep Genomics, among others. Deep Genomics made its first-ever discovery of a disease treatment and drug candidate using AI in 2019, since increasing that number. While Deep Genomics works closely on that drug discovery, BenchSci does no discovery of its own and sees its platform as a tool for scientists.
“[We are] serving big pharma and biotech by giving them access … in a way democratizing AI to supercharge and augment their science,” said Belenzon.
Image courtesy BenchSci.