A16Z Bio Fund’s Pande Sees A.I. as Way to Ride Bio Innovation

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diagnose a fluttering heartbeat (atrial fibrillation) by analyzing data generated from vital-signs sensors in the Apple Watch. “They’ve been able to show they can reach that high level of predictability, at 97 percent,” Pande said. “It’s a paradigm shift in terms of 24-hour heart monitoring.”

To Pande, the type of innovation underway at Freenome and Cardiogram represents a fundamental shift in the life sciences—from biological discoveries based on trial-and-error experimentation to bio-engineering that uses AI and “gold-standard” data sets to make high-quality predictions. In contrast to empirical biology, where Pande says scientific discovery is “more like winning the lottery,” a bio-engineering-based approach makes a life sciences startup more like a tech company that incorporates biology, computer science, and healthcare.

Using engineering techniques, Pande says innovators can plan things out, make incremental innovations, and progress in a very systematic way. And as Pande told Xconomy, the investment strategy underlying a16z’s bio fund is based on the premise that software and AI will play an increasing role at life sciences and healthcare startups.

If “software is eating the world,” as Marc Andreessen famously declared in 2011, Pande told Xconomy that the ability to read and write DNA—the code of life—means that “bio is going to be in everything.”

To help catch this wave of innovation in biology, former Syros Pharmaceuticals chief strategy officer Jorge Conde joined Pande last summer as a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz’s second bio fund. With two partners, “we have twice the bandwidth” for investing the new $450 million fund, Pande said.

The move also is one more sign of the increasing importance of genomics. Conde spent the past 15 years or more working largely in genomics. Before Syros, he co-founded the genome analysis company Knome, acquired by Tute Genomics in 2015 for undisclosed terms. Ultimately, though, what Conde and Pande see is a kind of proliferation in understanding—from genomics as the fundamental source code of the cell to a multitude of signals arising from gene expression, proteomics, and epigenomics. And understanding this system of systems requires software and AI.

In terms of reading the genome, Pande says AI has enabled a fundamentally deeper understanding that wasn’t possible before. And in terms of writing the source code, genetic engineering and gene editing tools like CRISPR make it possible to program biological systems, in effect designing with biology.

In his interview with Xconomy, Pande said, “Biotech today is very reminiscent of tech in the early ‘60s and ‘70s.” Conde added his perspective in a Q&A blog posted on the a16z website, saying, “Just as the Information/Computer Age yielded technology that allows us to assemble and move data around in amazing ways, there is no known force in this universe that’s more effective at moving around and assembling matter than biology.

“And so our ability to read it, to write it, to analyze it, to design with it is going to touch not just health but every industry — just as the computing industry did before it. Software first started disrupting the industries where the primary product was information, right? And then it eventually moved into the physical world, revolutionizing existing industries whether through Amazon or Ebay or Airbnb or Lyft.”

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