Not many scientists get solicited for photo ops, but for Daphne Koller it’s a regular occurrence.
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“It happens at pretty much any event that has tech people,” Koller says when asked about one recent snapshot. “It’s a little awkward. It’s not like I feel like this is something I deserve.”
Selfie requests are just one sign of Koller’s stardom, earned from more than 20 years bridging computer science, biology and education. She chalked up a string of accolades along the way: getting a master’s degree from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University at 18; becoming a Stanford University professor focused on machine learning at 26; winning, nearly a decade later, a MacArthur “genius grant” for research that combined artificial intelligence and genomics; cofounding $1 billion (valuation) Coursera , an early platform to let people around the world take university classes for free.
The next act for this 51-year-old innovator: Insitro, a firm in South San Francisco that aims to find new drugs by sorting through masses of data. If it succeeds, it will have overturned how drugs get discovered.
Lab biologists typically focus on a few specific proteins as drug targets. If those fail, data scientists make suggestions for others to try. Insitro, on the other hand, wants to collect much more data before the biologists go off on their hunt. It will leverage advances in bioengineering (such as Crispr gene editing) and in software that enables computers to see things that escape humans.
Koller describes her aha moment this way: “Machine learning is now doing amazing things if you give it enough data. We finally have the opportunity to create biological data at scale.”
“There are very few individuals who understand both sides of the beast,” says Mani Subramanian, who heads liver disease clinical research at Gilead. “The biology as well as the deep learning.”
Insitro’s computational experts and biologists work together to create lab experiments to produce massive custom data sets. Machine learning models then find patterns to suggest new tests and potential therapies. Robotics like automated pipetting machines reduce human error. With all this, Insitro can do “experiments in a matter of weeks instead of years,” Koller says.
AI plus biology, her background, was a “marriage made in heaven” for investors, she says. Within six months Koller raised $100 million from ARCH Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Foresite Capital, Alphabet’s venture fund GV and Third Rock, with Jeff Bezos and others joining later. In April, she landed a deal with Gilead Sciences that gives Insitro $15 million now with $1 billion to follow if it helps find a treatment for a deadly form of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The disease is expected to soon become the leading cause of liver transplants.
“There are very few individuals who understand both sides of the beast,” says Mani Subramanian, who heads liver disease clinical research at Gilead. “The biology as well as the deep learning.” […]