Imagine a model of collaborative research and development among hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, universities and other research institutions where no one shared any actual data.
That's the dream of the new New York-based startup Owkin, which has raised $25 million in fresh financing from investors, including Bpifrance Large Venture, Cathay Innovation and MACSF (the French Pension Fund for Clinicians), alongside previous investors GV, F-Prime Capital and Eight Roads.
The company's pitch is that data scientists, clinical doctors, academics and pharmaceutical companies can all log in to the virtual lab that Owkin calls the Owkin Studio.
In that virtual environment, all parties can access anonymized data sets and models exclusively to refine their own research and development and studies to ensure that the most cutting-edge insights into novel biomarkers, mechanisms of action and predictive models inform the work that all of the relevant parties are doing.
The ultimate goal, the company said, is to improve patient outcomes.
In its quest to get more companies and institutions to open up and share information -- with the promise that the information can't be extracted or used in a way that isn't allowed by the owners of the data -- Owkin is replicating work that other companies are pursuing in fields ranging from healthcare to financial services and beyond.
The Israeli company Qedit has developed similar technologies for the financial services industry, and Sympatic, a recent graduate from one of the recent batches of Techstars companies, is working on a similar technology for the healthcare industry.
Owkin makes money by enabling remote access to the data sets for pharmaceutical companies and licensing the models developed by universities to those companies. It's a way for the company to entice researchers to join the platform and provide another revenue stream for research institutions who have seen their funding decline over the last 40 years.
"We have a huge loop of academic universities that have access to the data and are developing algorithms and we share data," said the company's chief executive Dr. Thomas Clozel. "At the end what it helps is developing better drugs."
Declines in federal funding for scientific research since the 1980s (Image courtesy of The Conversation)
The investment from Owkin's new and existing investors takes the company to $55 million in total capital raised through the extension of its Series A round. In all, the round totaled $52 million, Clozel said.
"We are exactly where we need to be because it’s about privacy and privacy is more important than ever before," said Clozel.
The COVID-19 epidemic has emphasized the need for closer collaboration among different corporations and research institutions, and that has also increased demand for the company's technology. "It touches everything… We have access to the right data sets and centers to build the best models for COVID," said Clozel. "We’re lucky to have the right traction before the COVID happens and we have the right research that has been done."
In fact, the company has launched the Covid-19 Open AI Consortium (COAI), and is using its platform to advance collaborative research and accelerate clinical development of effective treatments for patients infected with the coronavirus, the company said. All of its findings will be shared with the global medical and scientific communities.
The initial focus on the research is on cardiovascular complications in COVID-19 patients in collaboration with CAPACITY, an international registry working with over 50 centers worldwide, the company said. Other areas of research will include patient outcomes and triage, and the prediction and characterization of immune response, according to Owkin.
“Since we first backed Owkin in 2017, we have been sharing its vision to apply AI to fighting one of the most dreadful diseases on earth: cancer," said Jacky Abitbol, a partner at Cathay Innovation. "Owkin has risen to become a leader in digital health, we are proud to grow our investment in the company to fuel its ambition to pioneer AI for medical research, while preserving patient-privacy and data security.”