Last week, artificial intelligence (AI) innovator AION Labs called for applications for its latest AI-powered startup. In partnership with BioMed X, the Israeli company hopes to attract top talent from across the globe to develop an AI platform capable of discovering new high-affinity small molecules.

Launched back in 2021, AION Labs was formed as an alliance between AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer and Teva, as well as Amazon and the Israel Biotech Fund.

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The successful startup will receive $1m in pre-seed funding, access to computational and wet labs provided with cloud support from Amazon Web Services, as well as legal and business advice from AION to support the company going forward. This is the sixth call for applications that AION has launched. Based on earlier rounds focused on other areas of AI-led drug discovery, the startups Omec.AI and DenovAI were launched last year. Omec.AI identifies hidden safety liabilities and efficacy gaps in drug candidates, and DenovAI focuses on the de novo design of antibodies with robust binding capabilities, specifically tailored to desired epitopes. The founders of two other teams from previous rounds have also been selected.

AION Labs hopes to create a platform that can virtually screen for hits from a pre-defined library of small molecules and rank them based on potential binding affinity. In a press release, Dr. Yair Benita, CTO of AION Labs claimed that this platform will accelerate the traditionally time-consuming drug discovery process. Currently, drug discovery relies on accurate information that is often despite this information often being unavailable. AI could work with incomplete data to expedite this process and widen the scope of future research, he said. The company believes this approach has the potential to revolutionise drug discovery in therapeutic areas with unclear mechanisms or limited success using traditional methods.

AI has already proven a boon in other areas of drug development in recent years with the Covid-19 pandemic motivating innovation. An analysis from GlobalData forecasted $3.3bn worth of spending on AI in drug discovery by 2025, more than triple the $1bn spent in 2019, and a year-on-year growth of 24.4%.

By capitalising on newly available ultra-large datasets, AI can address the demand for open-source research in drug discovery, and curb rising research and development (R&D) costs.

CEO Mati Gill praised Israel’s impressive pharma landscape and tech industry for enabling these developments. He told Pharmaceutical Technology that Israel’s significant healthtech data analytics sector, educated and skilled workforce, renowned universities and medical centres, as well as government support for the industry as reasons that made it an attractive country for pharma startups.