This Biotech Founder Wants to Use AI to Help Get Drugs to Market Faster

  • 7 min read
  • 21st March, 2024
  • Media Highlights
  • External Writer

On February 29, the last day of Black History Month, 1910 Genetics, a Boston-based biotechnology company, announced that it had reached a five-year commercial agreement and go-to-market strategy with Microsoft to accelerate R&D productivity with AI tools. According to current estimates, it takes on average 12 to 15 years and $2.5 billion to bring a new drug to market -- with a less than 0.01 percent probability of success from start to finish.

This AI-focused collaboration between 1910 Genetics and the world's most valuable company aims to bring novel therapeutics to patients faster, using a less expensive approach than the human-intensive and time-consuming approach that has largely defined the scientific method since the 17th century.  

That the announcement came during Black History Month was a satisfying experience for Jen Nwankwo, the 34-year-old founder and CEO of 1910 Genetics, who started the company in 2018, two years after earning a PhD in pharmacology from the Tufts University School of Medicine. Raised in Lagos, Nigeria, before coming to Claflin University, a historically Black university in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Nwankwo is now a leader in an industry dominated by middle-aged White men. In a survey of 30 biotech companies, Biotechnology Innovation Organization learned that only 6 percent of employees and 3 percent of executives identified as Black.  

Yet race is only one of many challenges that Nwankwo faces in Boston, which is the largest biotech hub in the world with nearly 1,000 biotech companies and headquarters for pharma giants like Biogen and Takeda. In the city's bustling life science community in the Seaport district, where 1910 Genetics has a 10,000-square-foot facility, Nwankwo also stands out for her gender, her youth in an industry that favors older founders, and her AI strategy.

"I call it the bias quartet," she says. "It's a very difficult quartet of walls that I have to navigate at any point in any meeting that I step into. The biggest disadvantage for me when I started my company at 28 was my perceived lack of experience in an industry that doesn't typically fund people below 50."

In meetings, Nwankwo would also encounter bias from potential investors who questioned her ability to run an AI company because she wasn't an expert in the field. "I'm a pharmacologist founding a pharmaceutical company that uses AI as a means to an end," she told skeptics. "I am going to be capable of hiring the right AI talent to bring them along for my vision."

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman believed in Nwankwo's vision, and in 2019, he led her seed round of $4 million. Nwankwo had met Altman in Silicon Valley after being accepted to the prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator, where she participated in a Demo Day and gained exposure to hundreds of investors. In 2021, Nwankwo closed a Series A round of $22 million, which was led by M12, Microsoft's venture arm. That funding helped the company grow its team and scale its AI and biology lab automation platforms.

Currently, 1910 Genetics is raising a Series B round that is expected to close later this year and be larger than both of the previous rounds combined.

Biology Is King

For as long as she can remember, Nwankwo has held an interest in making scientific breakthroughs and being a disruptive force in Big Pharma. When she was 13, she wrote an essay to the president of Nigeria describing how pharmacies in the country were peddling counterfeit drugs that were making people sick. Nwankwo received awards, scholarships, and recognition from government leaders who recognized her bold stance on such an important public health issue as the manufacture and regulation of safe non-counterfeit drug products.

"Since I was a kid, I've been pissing a lot of people off with my curiosity and my insatiable quest for knowledge," Nwankwo says. "At 13 years old, I saw in Nigeria an opportunity to overhaul and revamp our nascent pharmaceutical industry. So it's not farfetched as a 28-year-old that I would go on to create a pharmaceutical company."

1910 Genetics, which Nwankwo named to acknowledge the year that the first American patient was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, is on a mission to tackle the world's most difficult diseases using the most advanced technological tools to design drugs to fight them. Sickle cell, which adversely impacts people of sub-Saharan descent, is a provocative symbol both of Nwankwo's strong racial identity and her vision for the company, where biology is king. 

"What we know about sickle cell is that it is the first disease known to man at a molecular level," Nwankwo says. "We know a lot of excruciating detail down to your DNA about what causes sickle cell, and I wanted us at 1910 Genetics to use sickle cell to reflect sort of a North Star that guides us like a compass in terms of the types of diseases that we can go after. I believe that the AI tools we're building are going to have a much higher chance of success if they're going after diseases where we thoroughly understand the underlying cause in the same way we do for sickle cell."

AI Tools for Better R&D Productivity

Nwankwo says that the pharmaceutical industry has come to largely accept poor results in both the discovery and development phase of drugs. During internships with Eli Lilly and Novartis, she saw the challenges and failures that came when a 100-year-old pharmaceutical company tried to layer new technology on top of Industrial Revolution-era systems. "If I was going to be in a technology-forward pharma company, I had to create it," she says. "I had to do it from the ground up, and as I looked at the confluence of technology that was available to us, particularly around artificial intelligence, I had this innate desire to bring it into the drug discovery realm."

One of the unique aspects of the 1910 Genetics platform, Nwankwo says, is that it enables them to design different types of therapeutic modalities. At their Seaport district facility, robots conduct biological experiments 24 hours a day: Those experiments generate data that feeds into AI models, teaching the robots how to be more intelligent and efficient.

"With our technology and platform, we are going to increase the probability of success and decrease the time and costs to get a drug to market," Nwankwo says. "In five years, I want us to be a clinical stage company and the definitive, de facto drug discovery platform for every major pharma company in the world."

Finding Her Voice in Leadership

As the face of 1910 Genetics, Nwankwo spends a great deal of her time fundraising and keeping the lights on. Last March, she was 37 weeks pregnant with her first child when Silicon Valley Bank failed, temporarily wiping out millions in the company's bank account. "We had two years of cash in the bank, all of it gone in one split second," she says. "As a founder, nothing prepares you for that. Nothing prepares you for waking up and your company literally just died in front of you."

Nwankwo is nearing completion of series B fundraising during one of the most difficult funding environments in the last 30 years. It's a combination of these macro problems, which are out of her control, and the micro problems inside of her 20-person company that keep her up at night. Yet after nearly six years on the job, she's coming into her own as a founder who must juggle her responsibilities as a wife and mother with the demands of being the head of a pioneering biotech company.

1910 Genetics has also given her a platform to do more to increase diversity in the biotech industry. At Claflin, she struggled to find professors who understood her desire to become a scientist. Thankfully, she had summer internships that allowed her to pursue her interests in biomedical research and pharmaceuticals.

"If I had not had internships at George Washington University, Yale, Eli Lilly, and Novartis, I wouldn't be here," she says. "I have had people stand up for me. I have many examples of people who have gone out of their way to break protocol for me to try to work around rules that would have prevented me from stepping into institutions regardless of how brilliant I was."

Starting in 2025, Nwankwo will begin hosting five to 10 students from HBCUs for 12-week paid summer internships to expose them to the various aspects of the biotech industry. "We're going to give them the same opportunity I had to create their own path in the industry," she says.

After several years of primarily focusing on the operations and fundraising of the company, Nwankwo is ready to embrace her place as perhaps the only Black female founder and CEO of a venture capital-backed biotech company. "What does it mean to be a Black female founder and CEO in this industry?" she asks. "And in what ways do I want to use that platform to bring more visibility about this industry to African Americans who don't understand it very well?"

By: Farrell Evans

Read the full feature here.