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Toronto AI startup BenchSchi was founded in 2015 by Tom Leung, its chief scientific officer seen here in 2018, David Chen, Elvis Wianda and Liran Belenzon.

Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

Toronto startup BenchSci Analytics Inc., which uses artificial intelligence to help biomedical scientists cut time and costs from research, is extending its reach with a US$22-million fundraising round led by a Fidelity Investments Inc.-linked venture firm.

BenchSci’s AI algorithms take over the tedious task of sorting through scientific literature before researchers begin clinical trials. Its first commercial product helped biomedical researchers sort through research papers to determine which antibodies – biological proteins that a body develops to fight invasive substances – will be best for the experiments they plan, particularly in the hunt for new medications. The company says it can scan 10 million research papers in 72 hours with more than 93-per-cent accuracy.

On Tuesday, BenchSci will announce it that it will expand its search capability to a wider group of chemicals, called reagents, that help drive chemical reactions by identifying the presence of another substance. The company says it already works with 3,600 academic labs and 15 of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies; it believes there’s room to find more than US$10-billion in savings among life-sciences companies by making this portion of preclinical research more efficient.

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“Imagine if all information on which Amazon products to buy was locked in peoples’ journals, and to buy them, you had to read them all to know what to get,” says Simon Smith, BenchSci’s chief strategy officer. Without BenchSci, he continues, "scientists don’t have something like an Amazon.”

The US$22-million growth-capital round is led by the Boston area’s F-Prime Capital Partners, a private venture firm affiliated with Fidelity’s founding Johnson family that focuses on health-care technologies; it is the firm’s first Canadian investment. The round also includes contributions from returning investors including Google’s Gradient Ventures and Canadian firms Inovia Capital, Golden Ventures and Real Ventures.

With BenchSci, F-Prime senior vice-president Shervin Ghaemmaghami said he found that “the users of the product love the product. So hearing from the scientists how it had become part of their workflow, and how they used it on a daily basis, felt like a very good affirmation that there is something good and magical happening here.”

The company was founded in 2015 by Tom Leung, David Chen, Elvis Wianda and Liran Belenzon, who is its chief executive officer. “Understanding which reagent to use with experiment is a really complex task – there are over 30 million of those, and each behaves differently in a biological environment,” Mr. Belenzon said. “That’s a problem [Mr. Leung, now BenchSci’s chief scientist] used to face as a cancer researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital, and that’s a problem we solve today.”

BenchSci’s first antibody-literature-review product has been in the market for about 18 months, and its backers expect the broader reagent-focused edition will expand its customer base while learning from customers how to improve it. Pharma giant Novartis International AG will be the first client for the new product, BenchSci said.

“If you can fast-track the research portion of creating new drugs and new antibodies, you can basically advance the ability to cure diseases at a much faster rate," says Darian Shirazi, a Gradient partner who sits on the startup’s board and has watched the company quickly mature. “BenchSci is definitely on a tear. … It has customers paying them large contract values and [who] heavily scrutinize technology when they make a purchase."

Real Ventures was one of the first firms to back BenchSci and returned for the latest fundraising round. Managing partner Janet Bannister said she was “excited about the impact that the company will have on the speed and efficacy of drug discovery, which will result in millions of longer and healthier lives.”

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