Technology and health: where Cambridge comes together
Last month BenevolentAI announced that it had bought the Proximagen drug discovery and development facility on the Babraham Research Campus writes Louise Rich, head of investor relations and communications at Cambridge Innovation Capital.
Why would an artificial intelligence (AI) unicorn, valued at over $1 billion, want to venture out from the comfort of its London heartland in King’s Cross and expand to Cambridge?
As BenevolentAI’s founder and chairman Ken Mulvany explained: “The acquisition has expanded our scale and capability overnight and created something that previously did not exist—an AI company truly integrated across every stage of the drug development process.”
Treading a well-trodden path
BenevolentAI is just one of several companies that have targeted Cambridge businesses for their technical expertise, further endorsing the quality of the activities within the Cambridge Cluster.
In 2007 Illumina bought Solexa, thereby acquiring the revolutionary gene sequencing technology which enables the vast majority of today’s genomic analysis.
AstraZeneca bought Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT) in 2006, gaining the humanised antibodies initially conceived by Sir Greg Winter in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.
Technology developed by CAT was used to create adalimumab, the first fully human antibody blockbuster drug.
Humira, the brand name of adalimumab, is the world’s best-selling drug and has improved the quality of life of millions of people.
And more recently we have seen CSR acquired by Qualcomm and ARM by SoftBank.
Crucible of ideas
The Cambridge Cluster has a long history of discovering world-class science and then turning it into commercially relevant products. As Victor Christou, CEO of Cambridge Innovation Capital explained: “Cambridge hasn’t stopped innovating since an apple dropped on Isaac Newton’s head in 1666. The University is not just an ivory tower: it is a deeply practical place.”
As Victor Christou goes on to say, there are number of areas in which the Cambridge Cluster excels. “Cambridge has great depth of expertise in a range of exciting areas across both healthcare and technology including genomics, epigenetics, next generation antibodies, artificial intelligence and big data.
“Each of these areas is interesting in its own right, but we are seeing an increasing focus on the application of deep technology to help solve global healthcare problems.”
There are many ways in which technology is being used to improve healthcare outcomes. Several of these can be classed as technologies that can improve efficiency in hospital settings, such as the surgical robots being developed by CMR Surgical, the visualisation software of Cydar or the use of AI in assessing scans or pathology samples.
There is also a plethora of companies analysing existing data in medical research and finding new connections between them. For example, Healx is using AI to match existing drugs with rare disease. The need to process ‘big data’ in finding solutions to many of these issues plays to another strength of the Cluster.
The area between the city centre and central station is fast becoming a hotbed for companies interested in AI and machine learning, with research hubs of international tech giants such as Apple, Amazon and Microsoft joining start-ups such as PROWLER.io, Undo, FiveAI and Invenia.
The close proximity to the station primarily allows engineers and computer scientists to make the ‘reverse commute’ from London to their offices in Cambridge, with the convenience for meetings in London of only secondary importance.
Genomics powerhouses of the future
Genomics is another sector in which the Cambridge Cluster excels. Congenica, a spin out from the world-renowned Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, helps patients with genetic diseases, specifically rare genetic diseases, progress towards diagnosis by analysing, interpreting and creating clinically actionable reports from patients’ genomic data much more rapidly than was ever previously possible.
Inivata tackles a different area, analysing tumour DNA circulating in blood to provide precise diagnoses as well as to monitor the evolution of particular cancers over time.
Both of these approaches allow for the personalisation of medicine, improving response rates and making treatments much more effective and efficient.
The cluster effect
In AI, genomics, or other areas, the presence of many companies working in allied areas so closely located, coupled with a stream of highly trained, highly intelligent graduates leaving the University, benefits both employee and employer.
Employers benefit from sizeable talent pools from which to select new hires whereas, the presence of numerous employment options allows each employee to at least consider taking more risk, because of the safety net of other opportunities should the latest start-up business not work out.
Victor Christou comments: “The impact of the supportive ecosystem that has developed in the Cambridge Cluster should not be underestimated. It provides a support network and risk mitigation, allowing entrepreneurs more freedom to believe the impossible is possible and take a chance.
“This overcomes one of the biggest hurdles in converting an idea into a business. Cambridge is an ideal location to grow the game-changing companies of the twenty first century.”
• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Victor Christou, CEO of Cambridge Innovation Capital