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Alphabet’s AI venture capital firm makes first investment in Canada with BenchSci

Tom Leung, chief scientist at BenchSci, is pictured in his office in Toronto on May 1, 2018.

Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

Alphabet Inc.’s nascent artificial-intelligence venture fund has picked its first Canadian investment: BenchSci, a Toronto biomedical startup that uses machine learning to scan millions of data points in biomedical research papers, generating searchable results to help shorten the drug discovery process.

BenchSci is announcing a US$8-million Series A venture funding round Wednesday, led by Montreal’s iNovia Capital and including Google’s Gradient Ventures as well as previous investors Golden Venture Partners, Afore Capital, Real Ventures and Radical Ventures.

Gradient Ventures, an early-stage fund launched last July, joined to make its eighth publicly known investment, and its first north of the U.S. border. It’s a signal of approval from one search company to another that BenchSci chief executive Liran Belenzon says is an important validation of his company’s work.

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The internet-search giant, Mr. Belenzon said, will help BenchSci build best practices and a strong work culture while connecting the startup with potential customers. “They have unique technological expertise to add value to the company,” Mr. Belenzon said in an interview.

BenchSci aims to eliminate the frustrating trial-and-error required in determining the right antibody for drug-discovery experiments. Antibodies are typically produced by the immune system to fight off foreign substances; commercial versions were developed by scientists to study drug effectiveness by detecting changes in quantities of different biomarkers, or indicators of disease. Finding the right commercial antibody means scanning through endless reams of science literature. The firm's artificial intelligence is designed to help researchers speed up the literature search to find antibodies, potentially shaving months off the process of bringing drugs to market – and in turn, getting patients new kinds of treatments faster.

Ankit Jain, Gradient’s founding partner and a director of engineering with Google, said that his team hopes to help identify talent to join BenchSci’s growing staff – it plans to expand to 36 employees from 23 with this funding round – and to get on calls with prospective clients to help convince them of BenchSci’s worth.

“We think they’re going to have an outsized impact on both the biochemical world and on the Canadian entrepreneur community,” Mr. Jain said.

He noted, too, that the team is “very well-suited to the problem.” BenchSci was first dreamed up when Tom Leung, its chief scientist with a PhD in epigenetics from the University of Toronto, got frustrated seeking the right antibodies for his molecular biology research.

Seeking to establish a database that culled together published data on antibodies, he connected with David Q. Chen and Elvis Wianda, two U of T PhD students who work at the intersection of computer science and medicine. They took the business idea through a number of incubators, meeting Mr. Belenzon, then an MBA student at the Rotman School of Management, at the university’s Creative Destruction Lab.

BenchSci received $250,000 in pre-seed funding from Real Ventures’ FounderFuel before raising a seed round of $1.4-million co-led by Golden Venture Partners and Real Ventures, Mr. Belenzon said. It formally launched last July.

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Antoine Nivard, principal at iNovia, believes BenchSci’s technology is a strong example of using machine learning to process a large, extremely focused set of data. “I’ve been constantly amazed by the company’s ability to progress, and do exactly what they set themselves out to do,” he said.

Mr. Belenzon believes BenchSci’s advantage is in the depth of knowledge it can develop for biomedical research by applying machine learning to antibody-related text and images and text. Antibodies are just one classification of “reagent” compounds that help drive chemical reactions to identify the presence of another substance. Other classes of reagents will be BenchSci’s next frontier, Mr. Belenzon says.

Mr. Jain, of Google and Gradient, sees an “extremely large” market for BenchSci’s technology.

“These are drugs that are much needed by the community for some of the most serious ailments out there,” he said. “... They’ve laid the groundwork for something very impactful across drug discovery and literature in this space.”

Gradient’s other investments include stakes in remote-control self-driving car-tech company Scotty Labs and the shareable augmented-reality technology of Ubiquity6.

Alphabet Inc. is the parent company of Google.

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