Forged in Steel, Exscientia Brings New Processes to Drug Development
By Allison Proffitt
February 28, 2023 | The steel industry does not often give rise to biotech companies, but Andrew Hopkins traces the ideas that became Exscientia back to his time there.
Hopkins studied chemistry in university, partially thanks to a scholarship from the steel industry, so after finishing his undergraduate degree, he returned to work in a steel factory in South Wales.
“That was quite an interesting experience—very formative, actually. It really helped me understand the creative, destructive power of commerce and industry,” Hopkins said in a conversation with Stan Gloss for the most recent Trends from the Trenches podcast. At the time, about 30,000 people worked in that plant, but as new technologies, new ways of working, and new processes came in, nearly 90% of the workforce was reduced. “Obviously there were some devastating social effects,” he acknowledged, but there were market lessons, too, that stayed with him.
“When I ended up in pharma and biotech, I had a very different perception of the power of commerce and markets and what they can potentially drive, and the power of new technology, as well, to position oneself in those markets. I never actually saw things as standing still.” While his colleagues in pharma viewed their positions almost as tenured, Hopkins was watching for the shake up, looking for the technology that would change everything.
He was—perhaps—ahead of his time. Hopkins followed his steel industry work experience with a Ph.D. from Oxford University, a stint at Pfizer seeing pharma firsthand, and then a professorship at the University of Dundee. Along the way, he gathered scientific experience to add to his first market insight. While at Oxford, he worked on HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) drug design and crystallography, expanding his expertise beyond computational chemistry to structural biology, drug design, and biophysics. He had a “mini biotech experience” at Oxford, he said, designing compounds computationally, synthesizing them in the lab, and testing them. “That really gave me a huge, huge interest in drug discovery.”
He recognized the pharmaceutical industry as an information industry, and was intrigued with how to push it toward the modern compute, modern informatics, modern machine learning approaches that would make it most effective. In 2006, Hopkins and colleagues at Pfizer published a paper in Nature using machine learning to understand the network of pharmacological space (DOI: 10.1038/nbt1228). It was another step forward.
Not Another New Car
Hopkins had been looking for a fundamental change in drug discovery. Henry Ford’s innovation, he quips, was not another new car, but a new process to make cars. Hopkins is likewise interested in the mechanics—the processes—of drug discovery.
Pharma and biotech have had a drug development model they’ve stuck with. Raise money from a VC, generate a candidate, get more VC money, partner with a CRO to launch a trial. “[It’s a] great way of owning IP, a great way of development, etc, but it has not necessarily changed the fundamental process of how we run this industry,” Hopkins said. “That idea has been on my mind for a long time.”
By 2012, many necessary supporting technologies were maturing in step with Hopkins’ ideas. The power of machine learning had grown. Cloud computing made big compute accessible via credit card. And large public datasets became available. Exscientia was born.
Today the company boasts partnerships with Sumitomo Dianippon, Sanofi, BMS, and more. The company’s IPO, in October 2021, raised $350 million with additional concurrent private funding. And Exscientia is about to launch its fourth platform-designed drug into the clinic, Hopkins said. The company has come a long way since it launched it with a credit card and some burst instances on Amazon Web Services.
Hopkins advises other would-be scientist-entrepreneurs to have “a deep vision” that will survive science’s long journey but is compelling enough to keep you on course. The trip is not a straight road but winding, crisscrossing paths up a mountain. Be “fleet of foot,” Hopkins advises, willing to pivot when needed, while remaining committed to the vision at the top.
Finally, he emphasizes the importance of the team. “Absolutely learn from others. It’s not about the entrepreneur; it’s about the team. It’s about the people you bring with you,” Hopkins says, including both customers and staff in that number. “We have learned more from our customers than we knew ourselves and taught ourselves... Your technology will only get better when it’s interacting with the real world.”