The billionaire CEO of a top biotech VC firm details how a new type of AI could transform how we test and discover treatments

  • Artificial intelligence has the power to revolutionize biotech, Noubar Afeyan says.
  • Afeyan is the CEO and founder of Flagship Pioneering, the venture firm behind Moderna.
  • Flagship has in its portfolio multiple companies using AI in areas like drug discovery and testing.

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Artificial intelligence could change how we discover and develop treatments, the billionaire behind one of biotech’s most well-known venture firms said.

In Flagship Pioneering’s annual letter, Noubar Afeyan, its founder and CEO, said: “AI will transform biology in this century the way bioinformatics transformed it in the last.”

He noted the advancements of projects like Lensa AI and ChatGPT, which can generate pictures and compose text, from poems to cover letters.

“Computers harnessing vast amounts of information, ‘learning’ tasks and patterns, and generating novel products was only recently an imagined future. That future is here,” Afeyan wrote. 

Flagship is the venture-capital firm behind COVID-19 vaccine-maker Moderna, a company that Afeyan cofounded and now has a market cap of more than $69 billion. The Flagship method for company building starts with a vague “what if” question, and if the idea survives testing, it’s unveiled to the public, Afeyan told Insider in 2021.

In the letter, Afeyan said AI could revolutionize biotech by enabling the creation of new proteins, molecules that can replicate existing structures, and perhaps even new therapeutic molecules.

He referenced Flagship companies like Generate Biomedicines, which uses machine learning to discover DNA sequences for therapeutics. Other Flagship companies using AI include Cellarity, which aims to understand how cells transition from healthy to diseased statesValo, which harnesses data to make drug discovery more efficient, and Harbinger Health, which uses blood tests and AI to detect cancer. 

“Machine learning is augmenting not just intelligence but also imagination, inferring the rules of biology that have been too complex for humans alone to derive and conjuring new understanding of biological processes,” Afeyan wrote.

Afeyan isn’t alone in predicting that generative AI is gearing up to play a bigger role in healthcare. 

Morgan Cheatham, a vice president at Bessemer Venture Partners, told Insider he predicted generative AI would result in more than $1 trillion in value for the healthcare industry by 2040.

“A lot of people are seeing how generative technology is transforming consumer social, gaming, art, and all of these other areas, and the applications in healthcare are going to be much bigger because of the amount of data and impact that we can drive with it,” Cheatham told Insider in December.

Jordan Nof, a cofounder and managing partner at Tusk Venture Partners, also told Insider that AI had become advanced enough to diagnose patients, ideally giving more time for clinicians to spend with patients. But, he said, it will first be used in analyzing lab tests.

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sbraner@insider.com Sarah Braner