Why We Invested In Totient aka How AI Can Help Us Produce Drugs Against Cancer And Covid

2 min read

On Sep 10, Totient, an AI-driven drug discovery company, emerged from stealth with the announcement of a key partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks to rapidly identify neutralizing antibodies against COVID-19. Totient has raised more than $10M in seed capital from Tau Ventures and an exceptional mix of other tech and life science investors.

Our conviction in Totient is rooted in (1) the ambitious vision, shared by (2) a team which is both scientifically and commercially experienced, (3) and early platform validation. This post is focused specifically on Totient but reflects how we at Tau think about seed-stage investments broadly.

1) Vision

The immune system is an incredibly powerful force. Our bodies have evolved over millennia to fight off foreign pathogens and prevent disease. However, some people have stronger immune systems than others. What if we could look at people who successfully overcame diseases and “borrow” from their immune response, rather than each of us having to start a new defense from scratch every time we are faced with a new disease? Totient uses a robust machine learning and bioinformatics platform to analyze extraordinary survivors of cancer, autoimmune disease, viral infections, and more, and identify and reconstruct the antibodies that those patients produced to survive. They turn these antibodies into drugs that the rest of us can take, and the best part is that because they are human-derived, they are safer than anything we may synthetically engineer in a lab.

2) Team

Totient’s current team is 18 people, of which 14 are scientists and engineers — it’s the highest ratio of PhDs in any of our investments. Companies at the frontier are often challenged in commercializing their innovation, but we recognized their entrepreneurial acumen during diligence and ended up increasing our ownership after a few months. Specifically we recognized a strong partnership between CEO Deniz (pictured below on the cover of Forbes in his native Turkey) leading technical development  and CBO James leading business and operations. Deniz and James have worked together for nearly a decade, previously co-founding the leading bioinformatics company Seven Bridges, which was named one of MIT Technology Review’s 50 Smartest Companies in 2016. The Totient team also won #4 out of 2,749 teams in a Kaggle machine learning CHAMPS competition to build deep neural networks to predict magnetic interactions between a pair of atoms — they were the highest ranked startup.

3) Proof Points

When we took the bet on Totient we believed their ability to process data incredibly fast was the key to an eventual discovery. The bet is paying off: to the best of our knowledge Totient is the only group, whether in industry or academia, to have successfully validated antibodies assembled from standard bulk RNA sequencing (RNA-Seq) data, a widely available but notoriously noisy data source. The method works as a result of the statistical power achieved from tuning their algorithms on samples from over 50,000 extraordinary survivors. 

Totient was initially focused on cancer when we made our investment but as the broader scientific community mobilizes to address the coronavirus pandemic, Totient has adapted its platform and approach to aid in the effort to discover treatments for COVID-19. The partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks is a result of that effort. In this discovery collaboration Totient will run their algorithms on samples collected from the lungs of people who survived COVID-19 to identify antibodies that can be used to prevent and treat the virus in patients around the world.

Getting a drug in your hands may still take a long time since there is a long pathway but we are excited about the biotech and pharma companies that are now engaging with Totient.

I am the Managing Partner and Cofounder of Tau Ventures with 20 years in Silicon Valley across corporates, own startup, and VC funds. These are purposely short articles focused on practical insights (I call it gl;dr — good length; did read). Many of my writings are at https://www.linkedin.com/in/amgarg/detail/recent-activity/posts and I would be stoked if they get people interested enough in a topic to explore in further depth. If this article had useful insights for you comment away and/or give a like on the article and on the Tau Ventures’ LinkedIn page, with due thanks for supporting our work. All opinions expressed here are my own.

Amit Garg I have been in Silicon Valley for 20 years -- at Samsung NEXT Ventures, running my own startup (as of May 2019 a series D that has raised $120M and valued at $450M), at Norwest Ventures, and doing product and analytics at Google. My academic training is BS in computer science and MS in biomedical informatics, both from Stanford, and MBA from Harvard. I speak natively 3 languages, live carbon-neutral, am a 70.3 Ironman finisher, and have built a hospital in rural India serving 100,000 people.

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