In the summer of 2016, Chris Gibson, Blake Borgeson, and Dean Li sat down with the team at Obvious Ventures and walked us through their vision for Recursion Pharmaceuticals. Initially launched as an expansion of Chris’ research in the Dean Y. Li lab at the University of Utah, the team aimed to develop a computational approach to capture rich signal from cellular images and to use that signal as a way to characterize biology.
The company was early at the time, but there were already a few radical concepts baked into the platform:
Turning biology into a search problem. Recursion believes that many of the standard approaches to drug discovery rely on a reductive explanation of disease to a single genetic or protein target. In reality, the mechanisms of disease expression are multifaceted and nuanced. By using computer vision to characterize biological activity at the cellular/tissue level, Recursion is able to rely on a holistic, empirical signal and create a representation of the greater complexity happening inside the cell. Each cellular experiment allows Recursion to test a biological hypothesis or a drug class. Leveraging cutting edge robotics and lab automation, the company has been able to run 56 million experiments to date.
Productizing lab experimentation for machine learning. Unlike some early approaches in AI for drug discovery that attempted to force fit computation on top of biology, the team here did the exact opposite and developed biology for computation. Recursion understood the importance of purpose-built data sets early on and made steep investments to design and instrument biological experiments for the sole purpose of feeding into machine learning algorithms. The cumulative dataset of experiments serves as the foundation for the biological map that the company uses to make clinical decisions. Over the last few years, Recursion has added additional tools to the platform including computational chemistry and inference-driven screening to make the platform even more efficient. The result of this is a biotech company that has multiple levers of exponential scale, much like a technology company.
Operating with a truly interdisciplinary mindset. A pragmatic, collaborative approach to problem solving is a foundational tenet of Recursion. The company brings together a wide variety of cutting edge scientific and technical tools. The platform consists of siRNA and CRISPR knock outs, lab automation and robotics, computer vision, machine learning, medicinal chemistry, cell culturing… among other fields. The approach here is not about pitting technology vs. science but using whatever tools are available to build Recursion’s biological map.
These core principles have served as the north star over the last few years as the team has built Recursion into a pioneering company in computational biology. Obvious was fortunate to come in as an investor in the Series A and we have doubled down in the company in every round since then. Chris has spoken at multiple OV events and Recursion has served as an exemplary case study of a visionary company catalyzing drastic change in the world.
Today, the company reaches another major milestone and lists on Nasdaq as the first AI drug discovery company.
At this point, the success of the company and the output of the platform is well documented. Four clinical-stage assets, 37 pre-clinical assets, a wide-sweeping Pharma partnership, industry-leading publication and open source efforts. What is less cataloged through the IPO process and coverage is what leaves the largest imprint from my experience with the company.
First off, Recursion was a loooong and often lonely journey for the founders. The idea was met with near-universal skepticism. The company’s entire approach to disease biology was antithetical to conventional thinking in life science. The complexity of the platform was off-putting to both tech and biotech investors for a multitude of reasons. Industry partners simultaneously dismissed the platform for not being relevant and gave feedback that phenotypic screening was played out. The team built Recursion up in the face of tremendous adversity and remained confident in the first principles of the approach and the data that the platform was generating.
Second, the scope of Chris and the team’s ambition for the company is unbounded. At each inflection point in the progression of the business, the executive team at Recursion was prepared with thought-through plans for where to expand the platform from there. I believe that this is powered by a deep humility to serve patients and translate Recursion’s platform not just into fundraising or clinical progress, but into solutions for diseases.
We have no doubt that this IPO will be another milestone along the longer journey at Recursion to Decode Biology to Radically Improve Lives and we are thrilled to be along for the ride.