AI-powered drug developer hits $2B valuation, plans hires

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(Bloomberg) -- Benevolent AI, a London-based startup that’s using artificial intelligence to discover new drugs, has received $115 million in additional funding to hire more people and expand its focus to new diseases.

The latest venture capital investment values the startup at just over $2 billion, the company said Thursday -- about a 17 percent increase compared to estimates during its 2015 financing round. It also brings the total amount of funding the company has received since it was founded in 2013 to more than $200 million.

Ken Mulvany, the company’s co-founder and chairman, said in an interview the new funds came from new investors and existing ones, the latter including Woodford Investment Management Ltd, run by fund manager Neil Woodford. Mulvany said new investors included several family offices, but declined to name them.

Other past investors include London-based investment firm Landsdowne Partners, and pharmaceutical company Upsher Smith Laboratories.

Mulvany said he would like Benevolent, which currently employs 165 people in London, Cambridge, England, and New York, to almost double in size to 300 within the next year. In February, the company acquired a drug development lab in Cambridge for an undisclosed amount. The lab allows the company to manufacture new drugs and take them through clinical trials.

"We want to own the whole process from target identification to chemistry through clinical and pre-clinical development to marketing," Mulvany said.

Benevolent recently lost a senior executive. Head of its technology division Jerome Pesenti stepped down as chief executive officer of the company’s technology development arm earlier this year to take a job leading AI research at Facebook Inc. He had previously helped develop International Business Machines Corp.’s Watson AI platform.

Benevolent is working on treatments relating to certain brain cancers; sarcopenia, which involves age-related loss of muscle mass and strength; as well as Parkinson’s disease and, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Mulvany said Benevolent AI algorithms identified five compounds that it believed would help treat ALS and that had not been used in any existing drugs. These were tested by scientists at the University of Sheffield. One of the compounds didn’t work and three worked but no better than the molecules used in existing treatments, he said. The company is currently working to create a drug to treat motor neuron disease based on the fifth compound.

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