Envisagenics’ artificial intelligence wows real investors

Granted: Envisagenics co-founders Martin Akerman and Maria Luisa Pineda have been backed by the National Institutes of Health, once again.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

They’re on a major roll at Envisagenics Inc., a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory spinoff that’s piling up some hefty research grants.

Now based in New York City, the biotech announced this week that it’s been awarded a $1.5 million Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant from the National Institutes of Health – the second time the NIH has backed the data-crunching startup.

The new award is earmarked for the continued development of SpliceCore, Envisagenics’ proprietary, cloud-based drug-discovery platform, which uses artificial-intelligence protocols to identify biomarkers and potential pharmaceutical targets.

The two-year NIH grant also continues a significant hot streak for the bioinformatics-focused startup, launched in 2013 by cofounders Maria Luisa Pineda and Martin Akerman with the help of a $100,000 seed investment by Accelerate Long Island and the Long Island Emerging Technology Fund.

Envisagenics, which earned a $225,000 SBIR Phase I grant in 2015, announced earlier this month that California-based venture fund M12 (formerly Microsoft Ventures) and Washington State-based Madrona Venture Group were sinking a combined $1 million into the NYC biotech.

And that chunky investment followed the November 2017 closing of a successful $2.3 million funding round, with multiple investors – including the Empire State Development Corp., New York’s main economic-development driver – buying in.

Give me an “E!”: Team Envisagenics, raking it in.

That ESD award came through the NYS Innovation Venture Capital Fund, a $100 million fund established in 2014 specifically to support the commercialization of new technologies.

Envisagencis was among the first life-sciences companies to earn the fund’s attention. Like other investors, the state program was intrigued by SpliceCore, which is designed to combine machine learning and cutting-edge ribonucleic acid-sequencing tech to identify new RNA targets and design new drugs to correct splicing errors causing cancers and various genetic diseases.

The SBIR Phase II award will further SpliceCore’s RNA-sequencing abilities and “accelerate RNA therapeutics discovery,” according to Envisagenics, which officially introduced its commercial SpliceCore product late last year.

“We are grateful for the continued support from the NIH and for their recognition of the potential of AI drug-discovery platforms like ours to discover novel therapies,” Pineda, the company’s CEO, said Tuesday. “We’re excited for the next stage of growth for the company to leverage the power of AI and [RNA sequencing] data internally and in collaboration with biopharma partners to unlock new treatments.”

According to Envisagenics, errors in RNA splicing – the molecular process that shapes the “genetic message” extracted from DNA to produce functional proteins – are responsible for at least 370 genetic diseases, including Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a neurodegenerative disease that kills more children than any other genetic disease.

This relatively new understanding of RNA sequencing and splicing – and their roles in genetic malfunctions – is redefining how medicine works on a fundamental level, according to Akerman, Envisagenics’ chief technology officer.

“The discovery of disease-causing proteins was at the center of pharma innovation for decades,” Akerman noted. “But the new century brought us not only better knowledge of genetic information but also the computer power to interpret it.

“The RNA-splicing treatments that we develop target the flow of genetic information, so disease-causing proteins cannot be formed in the first place.”