Foresite Labs Hatches Big-Data-Driven Companies Destined to Shake up Healthcare
Foresite Labs CEO Vikram Bajaj, Ph.D./Courtesy Foresite Labs
The combination of big data, big genomics and machine learning is driving biopharma companies to scale quickly and commercialize faster than ever before. While companies are using elements of these technologies to enhance their programs, they’re rarely fully optimized to bring maximum value.
“Only a few do it well,” Vikram Bajaj, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Foresite Labs and managing director at Foresite Capital, told BioSpace. Those who do, however, often can accelerate commercialization from decades to years.
Currently, many machine learning tools in the life sciences have been repurposed from image recognition and natural language processing. Therefore, identifying “causal mechanistic drivers of biology and extracting causal factors from clinical records are challenges,” Bajaj said.
“The next generation of tools will be purpose-built to solve problems like causation and mechanism, rather than just association,” he predicted. “Black box solutions are not tolerable here, and the industry is large enough that tools can be developed specifically for life sciences.
“There’s a transformation happening in health care,” Bajaj continued. “Within the next ten years, many of the choices we make in the lab and in the care of patients will be informed with real data and individualized evidence.”
By ‘real data’, Bajaj means insights gained from applying machine learning to large-scale genomics data sets, big data from aggregated payers’ files and electronic health records and traditional life sciences research. That data will form the foundation for breakthroughs in scientific research and clinical medicine. “The results of such analyses can indicate which drugs respond best in which disease states,” he said by way of example.
“As a theme, that’s profoundly transformative, but few companies are doing it well and with scientific rigor. We created Foresite Labs to explore that union and remove the barriers to entry,” he said. With a staff of 35 (largely Ph.D.s) in the greater Boston and San Francisco areas, Foresite Labs is helping its portfolio companies start with the right data and robust analyses.
Such a deep, data-driven approach is enabling precision medicine, in particular, which is expanding from oncology to autoimmune diseases and other conditions. Alumis (formerly Esker Therapeutics), a clinical-stage company, is using this approach to stratify patients and understand the causal drivers of its lead indications. “For Esker and the other companies we’ve created in this space, we provide initial data sets, tools to generate new data and statistical support,” Bajaj said.
That approach is based on Bajaj’s experience as CSO of GRAIL as well as co-founder and CSO of Verily Life Sciences (formerly Google Life Sciences). At GRAIL, he said, “We generated a data set for early cancer biology that provided a tremendous amount of product optionality. Rather than studying one cancer at a time, we had an enormous data asset that defined a whole area of biology and led to a transformational product in the battle against cancer.” GRAIL was acquired by Illumina in 2020 for $10 billion.
Earlier, as Verily’s CSO, he was part of the team that spearheaded a systematic effort to converge data science, healthcare and technology to develop new and meaningful decision-support products for researchers, clinicians and patients.
At Foresite Labs, company formation is a cooperative process between scientific founders and the team. As Bajaj explained, “Many of the ideas emanate from dialogue between our team, the company management and its scientific founders. We add value wherever we can…helping with recruiting, financing and developing the scientific advisory board, for example. We conduct initial analyses and make our platform available to the companies to use internally. Of course, we seek to build out our companies with management teams that can push ideas forward.”
As a result, Foresite Labs’ companies tend to scale quickly. Interline Therapeutics, for example, was formed in May 2021 and now employs about 100 people. “We’ve created five companies in 18 months. Interline, Sestina Bio and Esker are publicly known and externally funded,” Bajaj noted.
Foresite Labs’ companies succeed in part because they are built-in ways that support intellectual cross-fertilization and diversity. “Within biotech, there’s no one formula that works for all. There’s no linear path to success, so companies need creative and diverse individuals,” Bajaj said.
“Our profession too often emphasizes a singular focus or a singular founder. That’s not the right approach to create transformative companies. Instead, transformative companies are created by the team as a whole.” Therefore, rather than looking generically for people with certain backgrounds, “We look for what each particular opportunity needs.” As he stressed, “Creating new and successful companies is much more scientific than simply financing companies with innovative approaches.
“As a practicing scientist who came to Google, I realized that the very questions we ask are circumscribed by the tools we use to answer them,” Bajaj said. “The toolkit that is emerging today is the greatest toolkit for discovery science that my generation has had, and it’s being deployed in a time in which there are enormous economic pressures on the healthcare system to answer societal needs.”
Bajaj said he sees Foresite Labs’ role as a catalyst to usher in the next generation of innovative companies, leveraging the vast quantities of precise data that are now available.
In that regard, his personal and professional lives mirror each other. “I do a lot of international development work, sit on advisory boards and volunteer expertise where it is most needed. During the past two years, especially during the pandemic, many of us in this industry devoted as much of our time as possible to helping in some small way.” His usual hobbies, and those of countless others, therefore, were suspended.