Tanja Dowe, CEO of Debiopharm Innovation Fund – Interview Series

AI For Business


Tanja Dowe is CEO of the Debiopharm Innovation Fund, the corporate venture capital arm of the Debiopharm Group. The fund invests in digital health companies impacting cancer, infectious diseases and drug development.

The Debiopharm Innovation Fund is known for investing in companies leveraging AI and big data. How important is AI in accelerating drug discovery?

A typical drug discovery process takes 4.5-6 years, requires repeated experiments in the laboratory, and results are uncertain. Less than 12% of new drug candidates obtained through the traditional drug discovery process make it to the market through clinical trials.

As healthcare costs continue to rise, our society cannot afford more expensive drugs. Over the past decade, his ROI in drug development has dropped by 80%. Drug discovery (and development) has proven unsustainable in the long term due to high costs.

AI can cut drug discovery time from just months to a year. AI technology is improving rapidly. Computing power is accelerating exponentially, and there are more and more high-quality data sets available for training AI models. This combination enables a more precise understanding of the chemical and biological space and accelerated drug discovery.

What do you look for in companies leveraging machine learning and AI?

We are looking for a combination of technical and scientific skills. The team should have biological or medical expertise and cutting-edge data science capabilities. AI is a great tool, but teams also need to understand the problem they are trying to solve.

On the data science side, look for an engineering and developer background. Are they up to date and have a track record of applying AI to complex problems?

As competition in this area continues to intensify, the company looks at the track record of existing customers before making an investment to demonstrate the company’s ability to engage with them and solve their associated problems.

Generative AI is all the rage, what do you think are the best use cases for generative AI in the healthcare sector?

There are many areas where generative AI can be used in healthcare. Opportunities can start as simple as developing content for patient education and patient support programs, and can be much more extensive, such as providing updates from the scientific literature to clinical decision support systems. to drug discovery.

In drug discovery, generative AI learns the relationship between chemical structures and their activity on specific biological targets and suggests de novo molecular designs with desired properties.

Some of Debiopharm’s previous investments have focused on genomics, what are your thoughts on how to incorporate machine learning into genomics?

Although the human genome consists of 20,000-25,000 genes, there are just over 800 disease-related molecular targets used in drugs currently on the market. We know only a fraction of how genomics affects disease. However, the increasing complexity and quantity of genomic data combined with other omics and clinical data requires better analytical methods. Machine learning has the potential to point out new connections between genomics and health conditions, allowing us to develop better and more targeted treatments for disease.

Debiopharm Innovation Fund is focused on Series A investments. These often have successful proofs of concept, but proof of scalability can still be an issue. How do you identify companies that can scale?

Scalability has two axes. The first is whether the market is ready to expand and the second is whether the startup’s technology and business model are scalable.

On the market side, more than 20 drug development programs by AI discovery companies have already reached clinical trials today. We also see a critical mass of pharmaceutical collaborations with AI companies. Therefore, we believe the market is ready.

On the startup side, even if the UX/UI isn’t fully optimized, they want to make sure that the technology platform is mostly the same and at least internally used for customer projects. We also want to ensure access to high-quality data. You need a clear development roadmap for your platform to show what needs to be built to ensure scalability and usability in the hands of your customers.

Most companies we see start with a service model and plan to evolve towards a recurring revenue model. Our investment theme is to invest in companies with a software business model rather than a biotech asset model, staying away from AI companies that only believe in developing pharmaceutical assets for licensing. Therefore, we need to see a reliable roadmap towards a recurring revenue model and a reasonable pricing strategy.

You’ve talked about the importance of the education that both big pharma and start-ups need to understand each other, how is Debiopharm helping with this?

When we invest in startups, we host a “Meet-the-Startup Day” at Debiopharm. We invite startups to give company-wide presentations and open doors for startups to access his Debiopharm expertise. Whether translational medicine, drug development or market access teams need to test hypotheses about customer needs or understand the technical capabilities required to connect with a pharmaceutical company’s internal technology stack We connect talented professionals with start-ups. In many cases we also facilitate collaborative discussions between startups and Debiopharm. This process allows the start-up to better understand its customer group. We are also educating our internal team to work with startups. To access the latest innovations, you can’t expect turnkey solutions, but you must adopt a co-creation mindset.

What would you personally look for in an entrepreneur looking to invest?

I get asked this a lot. We look for the hard-to-explain elements of entrepreneurship: passion, energy, enthusiasm, a strong belief that challenges can be overcome, curiosity, and flexibility of mind. Entrepreneurs also need to be optimists. You can’t build a thriving company unless you’re an optimist because you’ll get knocked down so many times. And you have to realize that you are an optimist. So by surrounding yourself with people who will support you, you can counteract your over-optimism.

However, there is one specific trait I look for in entrepreneurs. Responsiveness. We live in a fast paced world and as an entrepreneur you have to keep up. Responsiveness builds relationships and trust, whether it’s with customers or investors. No matter how good your skills are, communication between people can make or break you.

Do you have any advice for startups and founders looking to raise money for Debiopharm or other VC funds?

Investors are always looking for new and interesting startups. So please do not hesitate to contact us through events, networks or digitally. But remember, there are 400-500 investment opportunities per year. So be clear about what you are doing, how your customers are working with you, and how much you are asking. We screen and filter opportunities very efficiently and want to easily identify if your company fits our investment themes.

What is your vision for the future of digital health?

It’s simple: individualized, accessible, and proactive.

Personalization means that health data (health history, genetic profiles, continuous monitoring data from wearables, etc.) is digitally available and efficiently used for treatment selection and treatment management .

Accessible means that not only can all data be accessed, but digital access to healthcare providers is also possible, enabling diagnosis and treatment decisions anywhere in the world thanks to AI-assisted diagnostic methods and services. This means that the quality of the Clinical decision support system.

Prevention means that based on health data, digital diagnostics identify potential health problems early, and personalized digital treatments modify behavior to maintain a healthier lifestyle and reduce health risks. Means to prevent or reverse.

Thanks for the great interview. Readers interested in learning more should visit the Debiopharm Innovation Fund.



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