SoftBank's Vision Fund courts startups that mix data and pharma

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(Bloomberg) -- SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund is targeting a range of investments in startups that use data to help speed up drug discovery, as the near-$100 billion fund continues its deal spree.

Anglo-Swiss pharmaceutical group Roivant Sciences Ltd., said Wednesday it had raised $1.1 billion from investors, led by the Vision Fund, to start new subsidiaries.

Executives at the Vision Fund have also held late-stage talks regarding a major investment in drug-discovery startup BenevolentAI, however no deal is imminent, according to two people close to the discussions, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private. The London-based startup, valued at $1.7 billion, is one of five private artificial intelligence companies that have reached a valuation of more than $1 billion, according to data firm CB Insights.

Representatives for BenevolentAI and the Vision Fund declined to comment.

The fund’s plans highlight SoftBank’s desire to hunt out biotech firms that solve medical problems using data analytics, an increasingly popular target for tech investors. Grail Inc., a closely held Silicon Valley startup, has raised more than $1.1 billion since its 2016 founding from investors including billionaires Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. In May, SoftBank led a $360 million investment round in Guardant Health, a California-based cancer-detection startup that aims to deploy its test in 1 million people over the next five years.

“I admire SoftBank’s long-term vision, and I believe they will add significant strategic value to Roivant in the next phase of our growth,” said Vivek Ramaswamy, founder and chief executive officer of Roivant, in a statement.

With a rapidly expanding portfolio, the Vision Fund has already explored investments in industries as disparate as ride-hailing, co-working, robotics, agriculture and autonomous driving. The fund plans to hire about 50 people this year to help manage its investments, as well as staff with science and pharmaceutical backgrounds to help it hunt out biotech deals, according to people familiar with the matter.

Roivant analyzes data to hunt out unwanted and unapproved late-stage drug candidates, which it develops through a range of subsidiaries such as Axovant Sciences Ltd., which developed an Alzheimer’s treatment and listed in June 2015. The company is also developing technology to aggregate patients’ clinical trial data and explore ways to commercialize the findings, according to its website.

BenevolentAI, founded in 2013, uses machine learning to help parse medical data -- from existing studies to new papers -- to speed up drug discovery. In 2014 the company signed a deal with an unnamed U.S. pharmaceutical company for potential Alzheimer’s treatments potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

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