Exscientia has fired its founder, CEO, and principal executive officer Andrew Hopkins, PhD, and removed him from the company’s board, after it concluded that he engaged in relationships with two employees that the company’s board determined “were inappropriate and inconsistent with the Company’s standards and values.”

In addition, Exscientia chairman David Nicholson has resigned after the board learned that he knew earlier of Hopkins’ relationships, and addressed the issue directly and with the involvement of outside counsel rather than with the board.

Exscientia, the Oxford-based artificial intelligence (AI) drug pioneer, disclosed the termination of Hopkins and resignation of Nicholson in a regulatory filing yesterday.

“Dr. Hopkins’ conduct did not impact the Company’s consolidated financial statements or its internal controls over financial reporting, and his termination is unrelated to the Company’s operational or financial performance,” Exscientia stated. “The Company remains committed to advancing its internal oncology pipeline and broad partnership portfolio through AI-based drug design and laboratory technologies.”

The company is declining further comment beyond its regulatory filing and a follow-up statement today in which it defined itself as “an AI-driven precision medicine company committed to discovering, designing and developing the best possible drugs in the fastest and most effective manner.”

“When I first met Exscientia, it took me a long time to remember the company name. The mnemonic I used was taking S and putting it in front. It looks like it turned out to be rather prophetic… But I am not happy about this at all,” Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, founder and co-CEO of Insilico Medicine, a rival AI-based drug developer, posted on X.

According to the filing, the board’s Nominating and Corporate Governance Committee has begun a search for successors to Hopkins and Nicholson.

In the meantime, Exscientia has appointed its chief science officer Dave Hallett, PhD, to the additional positions of Interim CEO and Interim principal executive officer, as well as named him to the board. The company said it will disclose terms of Hallett’s compensation once they are set.

Hallett has served as chief scientific officer since February 2023 and joined Exscientia in January 2020 as chief operations officer. Before joining the company, Hallett served as executive vice president of chemistry and executive vice president of alliance management at Evotec.

Hallett trained as a medicinal chemist and served as a research fellow at Merck & Co. He holds a PhD from the University of Manchester in Synthetic Organic Chemistry and was a post-doctoral fellow in Synthetic Organic Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin.

To replace Nicholson, Exscientia’s board has appointed Elizabeth Crain, a non-executive director and chair of the company’s Audit Committee, as interim chair. Crain is a co-founder of Moelis & Company and served as its chief operating officer from 2007 to October 2023. She also serves on the board of directors of the Nokia Corporation.

Exscientia also reconstituted its board committees and, with Crain joining Robert Ghenchev and Franziska Michor to serve the Audit Committee, the Remuneration Committee and the Nominating and Corporate Governance Committee.

From Dundee to drug pioneer

In a wide-ranging conversation on GEN’s “Close to the Edge” video interview series in 2022, Hopkins recounted his journey from South Wales to the University of Oxford, Pfizer to the University of Dundee. At Dundee, Hopkins spun out a software company and its few core algorithms, with the goal of assisting pharma giants in drug discovery.

Andrew Hopkins (bottom) discusses his career and the founding of Exscientia in 2022 with GEN editors (top, L.-R.) Kevin Davies, PhD, and Alex Philippidis.

Hopkins’ firing comes just months after he found himself recognized in rarefied company, making both Fortune magazine’s inaugural Fortune 50 AI Innovators list, and Time magazine’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in AI 2023.”

“To be listed amongst Elon Musk, Sam Altman, and Demis Hassabis [CEO and co-founder, Google DeepMind] is an incredible and humbling honor to have,”  Hopkins told GEN Edge last December. “I think it’s a recognition that Exscientia has played the leading role in developing AI for drug discovery.”

Hopkins launched Exscientia (the name means “from knowledge”) in 2012. Nine years later in September 2021, Exscientia went public through a $350.4 million initial public offering (IPO) and concurrent $160 million private placement in September 2021, which generated a combined $470.6 million in net proceeds.

Exscientia parlayed its AI expertise into several collaborations with biopharma giants, including Sanofi (up to $5.2 billion oncology and immunology partnership), Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS; up to $1.3 billion-plus partnership); and Merck KGaA ($20 million upfront and undisclosed discovery, development, regulatory, and sales-based milestone payments).

This morning investors responded to the turmoil at Exscientia by sending the company’s shares down 20% in early trading today, from $7.51 at yesterday’s closing bell to $6.01 as of 10:15 a.m. The shares bounced back slightly to $6.16 as of 11:30 a.m., an 18% drop.

Exscientia’s shares peaked on their first trading day October 1, 2021, when they rose from the IPO price of $22 to $27.10. Over the past 52 weeks, the shares have traded between $4.17 and $9.12.

Pipeline pruning

The company last fall pruned its pipeline  down to four active drug candidates in therapeutic areas that include inflammatory disease, hematology, and most notably, oncology.

The four priority programs include:

  • GTAEX617, a cyclin dependent kinase 7 (CDK7) inhibitor being developed for a variety of cancer indications (partnered with GT Apeiron).
  • EXS4318, a selective Protein kinase C (PKC) theta inhibitor, the first immunology inflammation candidate designed by Exscientiaand its fourth molecule to enter the clinic. (partnered with BMS).
  • EXS74539, a wholly owned, preclinical-stage selective and reversible lysine specific demethylase 1 (LSD1) inhibitor being developed to treat acute myeloid leukemia (AML) as well as small-cell lung cancer (SCLC).
  • EXS73565, a wholly owned mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue lymphoma translocation protein 1 (MALT1) inhibitor being developed for potential indications in hematology.

Through the pipeline pruning, Exscientia  sought to refocus the bulk of its R&D efforts on what it considers the most differentiated, highest-value oncology targets within its portfolio—then translate that prioritization into generating the positive data needed to bring new candidates to regulatory approvals and into the market.

“We want to create a pipeline of highly differentiated molecules where the hallmark of a future Exscientia drug is, we can clearly define, clear blue water, between the properties of an Exscientia drug and the other molecules in its field,” Hopkins explained.

Most recently last week, Exscientia launched its EXCYTE-2 observational clinical study, designed to support development of EXS74539, which the company is developing as a treatment for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) as well as small-cell lung cancer (SCLC).

EXCYTE-2 will collect blood and bone marrow samples from first-line patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML)—with an option to expand to second-line patients—to investigate the relationship between actual patient clinical response and ex vivo drug response measured in primary blood or bone marrow samples using the company’s deep learning, single cell precision medicine platform. The trial will initially assess newly diagnosed AML patients, with an option to add relapsing/refractory AML patients following an interim analysis.

EXCYTE-2 builds on past precision medicine focused studies of EXS74539. One study was EXALT-1, which according to Exscientia was the first trial to leverage analysis of drug action in primary human cancer tissues using high content imaging and deep learning to guide treatment selection and improve outcomes in patients with late-stage blood cancers. The other study, EXCYTE-1 (NCT06068738), is an ongoing prospective observational study focused on ovarian cancer.

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