Ebola replicating on a cell (image courtesy Atomwise)

Y Combinator gives boost to U of T drug development startup

Backed by U of T's Techno, Impact Centre and Creative Destruction, entrepreneurs head to Silicon Valley

Its goal is to make better medicines, faster – and U of T startup Atomwise (formerly known as Chematria) just got a boost from Y Combinator, the prestigious accelerator in Silicon Valley.

Founded by alumni with expertise in high-performance computing and pharmaceuticals, Atomwise uses artificial intelligence to pre-test drugs in a computer system before testing them in a laboratory. The company received support early on from U of T’s Impact Centre, through its Techno program – part of a vast network of entrepreneurship support at the university, known today as the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

“Like in the Impact Centre, everyone [at Y combinator] is spending most of their time building their own companies independently,” said Abraham Heifets, chief executive officer and co-founder of Atomwise. “That's actually an advantage, due to the huge psychological support factor from having people who can empathize with the daily experience of building a company.

“Today medicines take about 12 years and $2.9 billion to develop. By eliminating vast swaths of experiments, we can make the drug discovery process faster, cheaper and better. Our field, computational biology, has a long history, but we've seen recent transformative changes in the amount of data, algorithms and computation,” said Heifets (pictured at right).  “We recognized that these allowed new ways of tackling classic problems in early-stage drug discovery. But the idea is only the first step, of course; learning how to answer the daily questions between idea and company was not something covered in my PhD.”

The Impact Centre's Techno program was created to ensure graduate students and alumni have the skills and mentorship necessary to bring this kind of technology out of the university. Since 2010, Techno has supported the creation and development of over 70 companies, many of which continue to receive mentorship and other support from the Impact Centre team. 

Teams behind technologies as diverse as vibrational dampeners for high-rise buildings, infection control products for hospitals, and platforms for processing digital pathology images have all benefitted from Techno. The Atomwise team has been working hard to develop their technology while refining their pitch and business model since participating in Techno2012.  

“It was amazing to be surrounded by people with such hustle and drive,” said Heifets. “The people at the Impact Centre are entrepreneurs themselves and, having been there before, know what is critical and what only feels critical.”

Richard McAloney, director of technology management and entrepreneurship at the Impact Centre, said Atomwise has made tremendous strides since it first came to the Impact Centre. 

"This is an example of what hard work, passion and enthusiasm coupled with technical excellence can achieve,” said McAloney. “Abraham Heifets and the Atomwise team provide a fantastic example of the Impact Centre’s mission and the goals of our Techno program to bring science to society. I am confident that they will impact the world in a big way.”

Atomwise has also participated in The Next 36 and U of T's Creative Destruction Lab program at the Rotman School of Management and received significant grants from Grand Challenges Canada.The company’s projects on Ebola, malaria, measles and more have been featured in such outlets as MashableTechCrunch and CTV.

The company recently started a large evaluation project with pharmaceutical giant Merck and pitched to investors and partners at the Y Combinator Demo Day.

“Because the program has a fixed deadline, there's an incredible intensity to get as much done by Demo Day as possible,” said Heifets. “While at Y Combinator, we did little but eat, sleep, talk to customers and build the product. I learned that most performance barriers are just low expectations.”

Heifets is excited about the challenges ahead. “When you know that people's lives are at stake, it's easy to work hard. That's one of the benefits of working in medicine.” 

(Do you have an idea that could create a big impact and are ready to learn what it takes to bring it to market? Apply for Techno2015.)

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