Relay Raises $400M to Kick Protein Motion Drug R&D into High Gear

Xconomy Boston — 

The line dividing biotechnology and high tech is blurring as drug companies find new ways to apply computer advances in the hunt for new drugs. Relay Therapeutics uses these techniques to better understand a protein’s role in disease and develop a drug to address it. Cancer is Relay’s first target.

The Cambridge, MA, biotech is moving forward with its plans to advance its lead cancer programs into clinical trials with an additional $400 million it raised in a Series C round of funding led by the SoftBank Vision Fund. It’s the fund’s second major Boston-area funding in as many days after yesterday investing $500 million in a Cambridge driving-data business.

Analyzing proteins to find new ways to treat disease is not new. But Relay CEO Sanjiv Patel says a weakness in earlier approaches is they studied proteins as if they were static, like a still image captured in a photograph. Proteins, however, are dynamic shape-shifters and as their shapes change, so too do their roles in both health and disease, Patel says.

Relay’s technology uses computational techniques to understand this “protein motion.” Once Relay understands what a protein does in its particular shape, the company can design small molecular compounds to target the protein and stabilize it in the “normal” shape.

Relay was formed in 2016 by scientists and entrepreneurs aiming to apply computational techniques to protein motion. The company then raised $57 million in Series A financing. Last year, Relay raised $63 million in a Series B round of funding. Since then, Patel says the company has developed preclinical drugs developed to block cancer-causing proteins.

Patel declined to specify which cancers Relay is targeting, other than to say the drugs target a genomically defined group of patients. He says that the company wants to test a “range of oncology discovery programs” in clinical trials over the next few years. Relay also plans explore potential partnerships with large pharmaceutical companies that could help it develop and test its drugs.

Proteins play a role in nearly every disease, and Patel says Relay will use the new capital to expand its research into more therapeutic areas. Relay plans to also enhance its technology platform, which uses artificial intelligence and machine-learning techniques to analyze proteins and develop drugs. The company, which currently employs 70, is projected to top 100 in 2019. Patel adds that the company will relocate to a new, custom-built space in the coming year.

Many of Relay’s new hires are coming from outside of the pharma industry. Patel says the company has been drawing academics who have experience in artificial intelligence research, as well as computational scientists in the tech sector who want to use their skills in a different way.

Patel says Relay sits at the crossroads of where drug discovery and development will be in the future. Conventional drug companies are already using more computational techniques while computational firms aim to test their discoveries in laboratory experiments.

“If you fast forward in time, every company will be at this intersection,” Patel says. “Our vision is to be at the leading edge.”

Others joining Relay’s latest financing include new investors Foresite Capital, Perceptive Advisors, and Tavistock Group. Earlier investors GV, Casdin Capital, BVF Partners, EcoR1 Capital, an affiliate of D. E. Shaw Research, and Alexandria Venture Investments also participated in the round.

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