Create Value & Success Will Follow, Anima Biotech CEO Yochi Slonim Says
Yochi Slonim / Anima Biotech CEO
“When big pharma collaborates with biopharma companies, the main risk isn’t the technology, but the commitment of the partner,” according to serial entrepreneur Yochi Slonim, CEO of Anima Biotech. That isn’t merely his opinion. The question arises in partnering meetings routinely.
Before collaborating, potential partners need to know each other’s intent and vision of the future. “Unfortunately, pharma and biotech often don’t have the same view of the future. Biotechs usually want to collaborate to gain credibility…but may quit when progressing becomes too hard,” he said.
“To be a good collaborator, a company first must intend to actually collaborate. Look into your heart. A collaboration will compete for management attention and priority with your internal priorities and plans. Will you invest in the collaboration to make it successful, or turn to something your investors now say is important?” he asked.
“Secondly, you need to dedicate yourself to the collaboration so you don’t consider it less important than your internal programs. For Anima, collaboration is our main growth model. Therefore, in talks, we share how we do things with the intention of expanding projects toward the licensing of our platform. But you have to be committed,” he stressed.
Slonim honed that philosophy in the world of high tech. He was instrumental in the inception of three successful software companies, the most notable of which was Israeli-based Mercury Interactive, where he was VP of R&D and CTO from its formation in 1989 until 1996 when he left to become COO of Tecnomatix and, eventually, to found two more software firms and a company accelerator.
With this background, why go into biotech? “It wasn’t for the money,” Slonim said, “but for the feeling that I was doing something meaningful. I wanted to do something that was worth dedicating the next 25 years of my life to,” he recalled.
Slonim became acquainted with Anima when the company was little more than an idea. Slonim became an angel investor, and then chairman of the board, co-founder, and CEO.
Anima developed a platform to discover small molecule mRNA drugs for us internally or with partners’ targets. It combines novel biology, high scale automated screening, and cloud-based computational biology of mRNA imaging analysis with AI software.
The core of the fully-automated platform is a patented technology that visualizes with light pulses the translation of mRNA into protein by ribosomes in real time so scientists may better understand the underlying mechanisms and disease progression across individual cells.
It is used in collaborations with Lilly and Takeda Pharmaceuticals, as well as by Scripps Research Institute and academic institutions. The company recently reached its first milestone in its collaboration with Takeda for a Huntington’s disease target, as part of a multi-target program.
Achieving this milestone is very important to Slonim. “Takeda put its hardest targets in front of us, so this means our technology is demonstrating its ability to deliver. For any milestone you actually achieve, however, look forward. There are so many others you also need to achieve.”
In 2014, when he co-founded Anima, Slonim held a Master’s degree in computer science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “So,” he recalled, “I studied biology and trained myself by taking more than 30 university courses online. At first, in meetings with scientists, I’d say, “Wait, I’m a software guy. Let me introduce you to my VP of R&D. I’ve stopped saying that.”
Slonim approaches biotech much as he did high-tech. “I wanted to bring the technology to its maximum potential.” That means flexible partnering, at scale. Therefore, technology handover can occur whenever the pharma partner wants, whether that’s after identifying hits or leads, selecting candidates, or being closer to the clinic.
It also means maximizing possibilities. Many biotech companies have solutions that may apply to hundreds of targets, but only focus on a handful of programs. Therefore, “everything hinges on the lead program,” he observed out. “If that program fails, the entire proposition is in doubt.
“If the approach has so much potential, why not rely on 10 or 20 partners?” Slonim asked. The answer lies with investors. “Investors haven’t seen companies partner at scale sustainably, so they recommend investing in a few indications. They are thinking as a fund,” he said, and mitigate their risks by investing in multiple companies.
Slonim and Anima Biotech take a different approach. “mRNA is a once-in-a-generation type of opportunity. It is perhaps the biggest, single validated drug mine of this generation.” mRNA vaccines developed for the COVID-19 pandemic have been validated by one billion people who have received the vaccine in less than a year, and RNAi drugs have entered the market, too, as novel strategies against many diseases. “Controlling mRNA biology with small molecules is now seen by big Pharmas the next step in mRNA drugs,” he said.
The past year has changed the challenges for Slonim and Anima significantly. Before the pandemic, he recalled, “almost nobody knew much about mRNA biology,” so he was following the latest research and educating big pharma and investors. Few believed there were drugs to be found there.
“RNAi changed that, so now people are mining for drugs like miners once mined for gold. I don’t need to pitch it anymore. Now they ask how Anima is different.”
The answer, incidentally, is, “Anima combines live biology with the software that enables scientists to understand the mechanism of action early on.” To do that, “We built a platform that is screening phenotypically in live cells, creating mRNA images. We combine the technology with big data in the cloud with mRNA biology data, analyze it, and find the mechanism of action of the drugs almost automatically, by seeing what the compounds do to mRNA.”
In less than a year, Anima has done that for six molecules. Using traditional technologies, big pharma could spend as long as five years trying to understand the mechanism of action of a single molecule and still fail to identify how the compounds work. His goal, he said, is “to put our technology into the largest number of programs as possible to maximize the chance that its value will be realized.”
Anima’s R&D operations are based in Tel Aviv, with partnering offices in London and Boston. Slonim splits his energy among those offices while carving out time for his family – he has four daughters – and for exercise. “I invest my free time in sports,” he said. “Making sure you’re fit and healthy is super important if you want to run a company.”
Slonim’s measure of success encompasses the whole picture, beyond having a drug approved or increasing shareholder value, he said. “Success for me is enabling 100 drug discovery programs from our technology, to give them a chance to treat diseases for which nobody had a really effective strategy. From that, if you create real value, financial success will come.”