The South Korean AI-driven drug discovery venture is vying with global rivals in the space to show concrete validation of its approaches in partnered projects, while eyeing international expansion and new fundraising, its CEO says.
AI Source: ShutterstockPURSUING DISCOVERY OF FIRST-IN-CLASS, NOVEL MOLECULES
With a goal to offer a new standard in novel drug discovery using artificial intelligence (AI) technology, South Korea’s Standigm Inc. is progressing multiple co-research projects with pharma and other partners, and is poised to establish a new laboratory facility this year to further validate the competitiveness of its AI-designed molecules. Founded in 2015, privately-held Standigm has developed what it says is an automated and all-encompassing AI approach, using experts in chemistry, biology, pharmacology and data structures, as well as AI itself.
Its business model is to focus on the discovery process pre-lead optimization, with the successful output from a collaboration to be further developed by partners or licensed out to a third party.
Jinhan Kim, CEO and co-founder, Standigm
‘Real Output’ Matters
“Technological positioning is crucial. In the end, output matters. How and when can you reach the proof of concept? How much impact can you make?” Standigm CEO and co-founder Jinhan Kim asked rhetorically in an interview with Scrip. “Many AI-driven drug discovery companies have technology to generate new molecules but only a few have the technology to discover new targets. That is how we are differentiated.”
Over the past few years, the use of AI in drug discovery has become one of the most hyped technologies in the sector. Big pharma has also been investing in the field both internally and via external partnerships. Concrete evidence of the theoretical benefits came in 2019 when two companies, including UK-based Exscientia Ltd., lay claim to a major milestone in the form of the first AI-discovered drug. (Also see “The Drug Hunter’s Assistant: Accelerating Drug Discovery With AI” - In Vivo, 25 Nov, 2019.)
Strategy-wise, Standigm’s focus on early-stage discovery means it is pursuing first-in-class drugs, and it is equipped with technology portfolios in line with this strategy. “In terms of capability to generate the ‘real output’, or things we can actually sell, I would say Standigm lags just behind a few top AI drug discovery firms globally,” Kim said.
Pursuing full-stack industrialization of the discovery process using AI approaches, Standigm’s platforms range from novel target discovery to drug lead generation. It has achieved the automation of molecular design workflow through its Dark MolFactory system and automation has been extended to the entire discovery process using multiple proprietary platforms, including Standigm ASK (target discovery), Standigm BEST (lead selection) and Standigm Insight (drug repurposing).
ASK can identify targets utilizing an explainable deep learning model, while BEST generates novel compounds satisfying the desired properties of partners by exploring an AI-generated latent chemical discovery space that maps compound structure patterns into information-rich representations.
Existing or novel compounds can be generated by decoding any points in this space, and the Insight platform meanwhile can reinforce any in-house compound by the discovery of potential hidden indications and pathways using target prediction.
New Indication Success
At present, Standigm is progressing 18 pipeline assets with partners across various therapeutic areas including cancer and skin diseases. The most advanced is at the lead optimization stage and is set to move on into preclinical development later this year.
One of the venture’s recent notable achievements was in January, when it and partner SK Chemicals Co., Ltd., a major Korean group, successfully identified a new rheumatoid arthritis indication for a US FDA-approved drug using Standigm Insight, and have now filed for a patent. This was the first successful result of the firms’ partnership, which aims to identify novel lead compounds and repurpose existing drugs for both rheumatoid arthritis and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
In a mouse model of collagen-induced arthritis, the compound showed comparable or better improvements in disease activity score than reference drugs such as methotrexate and hydroxychloroquine. Further research and development of the compound is ongoing with the objective of completing preclinical studies, and the companies expect significant reductions in cost and time for preclinical and clinical development for the new indication.
Standigm is also collaborating with various other pharma companies both at home and abroad, as well as with research institutes and hospitals.
With Hanmi Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd., another leading Korean group, it is developing pipeline candidates in areas including cancer and NASH. It has also reached a co-research and development agreement with HK inno.N to discover new chemical compound structures using its AI platforms.
Speaking on partnership strategy, CEO Kim said he considers reliability the most important factor. “We seek partners that don’t reach dual contracts and who prioritize success of the compounds and projects and not those who pursue other objectives such as raising stock prices or corporate images.
“Secondly, we want partners who prioritize our projects. Otherwise, it can slow progress of the projects or disrupt allocation of budgets for the projects.”
New Lab, IPO Plans
Standigm plans to establish a new drug synthesis laboratory with the aim of improving synergies between data-driven AI and actual physical experimental work. “There are things that AI is good at but also areas that don’t work well when we go further. We need to resolve this issue. At present, only a few global companies, such as Exscientia, have independent synthesis labs,” Kim observed.
So far, the bioventure has raised about $60m in total, including pre-IPO funding of $44.5m earlier this month. As part of the partnership with SK, the SK Group conglomerate has invested KRW10bn ($8.8m) in Standigm and together with the group’s new drug development subsidiary SK Biopharmaceuticals - which also operates an AI-based drug platform - the two parties aim to grow into global market leaders in the space.
Standigm’s near-term funding goal is to launch an initial public offering on the Kosdaq market in South Korea sometime this year. In the longer term, it aims to enter, and generate revenues from, the global market.
“We have been planning to advance into other markets but the plan has been delayed partly due to the COVID-19 situation and IPO plan. We are trying to establish offices in countries such as the US and UK but the timing and other details haven’t been finalized,” the CEO said.