Eli Lilly will support its drug discovery efforts through an up-to-$560 million partnership with Atomwise to develop up to ten drug targets selected by the pharma giant, using the San Francisco company’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

The partnership, announced by Atomwise, aims to speed up target identification and drug development by tapping in to Lilly’s expertise in virtual library design, the large number of molecules enabled by automated synthesis that Lilly has in its robotic laboratory, and Atomwise’s analytical know-how, which will be applied to help Lilly molecules that hold potential as new therapeutics for specific diseases.

“Lilly has made it clear that they are focused on developing drugs for novel target proteins, which are often challenging and less well studied,” Atomwise CEO Abraham Heifets, PhD, said in a statement. “Our expertise and tools have been shown to succeed with these kinds of targets, and therefore could be a key to unlocking success for patients.”

Lilly has agreed to pay Atomwise up to $1 million per target in discovery milestones, as well as up to $550 million in payments tied to achieving potential development and commercialization milestones for all targets. As part of the agreement, Atomwise said, it will have the option to develop compounds from the collaboration that Lilly chooses not to advance into clinical testing.

Atomwise uses AI for its structure-based, drug design technology, which is designed to enable scientists to predict how well a small molecule will bind to a target protein of interest, as well as remove sole reliance on empirical screening. The company says its tech can screen billions of compounds, and has demonstrated success using homology-modeled proteins.

More than 60 partnerships

Lilly is not the first pharma to sign a collaboration agreement with Atomwise, which has partnerships established with more than 60 biopharmas and academic institutions. Atomwise said it now supports discovery projects in more than 100 universities and hospitals in 19 countries, across every major therapeutic area.

In January, for example, Atomwise signed a strategic alliance with Charles River Laboratories that could generate potentially more than $2.4 billion in royalties for the AI platform developer. Charles River agreed to use Atomwise’s technology in preclinical research, in return for paying Atomwise a technology access fee for each project; payments tied to milestones in hit discovery, hit-to-lead, and lead optimization; plus royalties from clients.

Other biopharma giants teaming up with Atomwise include AbbVie and Merck & Co. Also partnering with Atomwise is Pfizer, which has agreed to assess Atomwise’s platform for identifying potential drug candidates for up to three target proteins selected by Pfizer. In return for the access, Pfizer agreed to pay a technology access fee and additional milestone payments for each target protein of interest; the amounts were not disclosed at the time.

Established in 2012, Atomwise has raised over $50 million from venture capital firms to support the development and application of its AI technology. Most of that consists of a $45 million Series A financing completed in March 2018, led by Monsanto Growth Ventures, DCVC (Data Collective), and B Capital Group.

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