Digital Innovators: Q&A with BenevolentAI founder and chairman Ken Mulvany

Ken Mulvany
BenevolentAI is redefining the process of scientific discovery. (Source: Getty)

BenevolentAI is a tech company which applies AI to accelerate scientific discovery.

Last year BenevolentAI was identified as one of 50 of the freshest and most inspiring digital companies using technology and innovation to shake up their sectors in our Digital Innovators Power List. Following a public vote and after careful consideration by supporting partners and judges, it was named as one of the top 10 Digital Innovators. Later this year two of these companies will be identified as a "life changer" or a "market transformer".

Founder and chairman Ken Mulvany tells us his long-term vision for the company and gives us insight into why it's one of the UK's leading digital innovators.

Talk me through the business. What sparked the idea? How do you compete with other players/what sets you apart?

The idea came from my experience of founding and running Proximagen, a biotech (sold in 2012 for $555m). I saw an exponential rise in the volume of scientific information and how the scientific industry was finding it impossible to read and use all that vast complex data effectively. This was having a negative effect on the rate of new discoveries. I founded BenevolentAI to try and do two very specific things i) build a technology that could ingest, read and contextualise all of the worlds’ available bioscience information to establish facts from that information – essentially a definitive connected knowledge of bioscience; ii) enable the technology to reason on those facts and create completely new ideas and inventions – in the first instance finding treatments and cures for disease.

BenevolentAI has applied its technology to accelerate the discovery of new medicines creating the world’s richest bioscience knowledge graph containing well over 1bn meaningful relationships specific to drug discovery. The technology enables a completely unique understanding of disease and can deliver significantly higher success rates in discovering new medicines and potential cures for disease.

It’s an overused word but we are ‘unique’ on a number of levels – our business model involves monetising the discoveries the technology creates, not the technology itself. We do not sell or license our software. Our technology focuses on the entire drug discovery process not just one single element of it. We have drug development scientists and technologists working side by side which is unusual, many companies’ tech and bio teams work in total isolation. Most importantly what truly differentiates us as that we apply AI to find new discoveries in the form of new disease target associations. As far as I am aware, all other AI companies that operate in this space only apply AI to existing discoveries i.e. what is already known, we are finding the ‘unknown’.

How has your company grown in the past few years? What are the most crucial things you have done to grow it?

In 2013, we had three people, we are now over a hundred and expecting this to grow significantly in 2018. We started to apply our technology in 2016 – we had one drug research programme in the field of ALS (also known as motor neurone disease). We are now working on over 20 programmes driven by the technology, have a rich patent portfolio, have raised $87m in funding, seen early commercial traction with an Alzheimer’s out-licence deal with a major US pharma and an in-license deal with J&J, initiated our first Phase IIb, built and proven the technology and established a market leadership position. The breakthrough in ALS in 2017, where positive results for our AI derived invention was announced, provided validation of the power and potential of our technology – the focus on demonstrating the tech worked in one programme was clearly a crucial part in helping us to significantly grow.

Where do you hope to be in a year/two years? What is your long-term vision for the business?

In drug discovery, we’d like to have progressed the current pipeline so that there are a large number of AI generated drugs in late-stage clinical development. Ultimately, in the medium term, the vision is to have our AI-driven drugs on the market treating some of the world’s 8,000 currently untreated diseases. There is also the opportunity to apply our technology to other science-based industries underpinning many of the world’s most valuable markets such as advanced materials, agriculture, nutraceuticals and animal health. Initially, we’ll explore other verticals by looking at how the tech can be applied to the multi-billion-dollar energy storage market. The long-term vision is to be the default AI company in scientific innovation. We believe that our technology is applicable to every major scientific industry so in terms of size, reach, impact and value, the sky really is the limit.

How do you see the state of the market in which your business operates? What are the biggest challenges you will face in the coming years and how do you hope to overcome them?

Despite the explosive growth of data, scientific discovery has not changed for 50 years - a life science paper is published every 30 seconds, there are 10,000 updates on PubMed a day and 90 per cent of the world’s data was created in the last two years. It is impossible for humans alone to process all this information for the advancement of scientific research. The challenge, as with all fast-growing businesses, will be one of discipline around focus and managing growth.

How important is innovation to your business? How do you engender a culture of forward thinking and creativity with your staff?

Innovation IS our business – it’s precisely because of a lack of innovation in science that we founded the company. We’ve designed our environment to make disruptive, innovative leaps more likely. We bring together experts from multiple domains and backgrounds and they literally sit together, working on our hardest problems. We believe removing barriers to cross-disciplinary conversation is key to identifying novel routes forward. We hire social people who are hugely curious about different perspectives and open to challenges and change. The team has a start-up mentality and makes use of lean start-up methods without compromising scientific rigour: build, measure, iterate cycles that allow people to take risks and learn fast, which can move our ideas and capability forward at an astonishing pace. At the same time, we invest in longer term research and take bigger bets on new ideas that might be transformational. It’s this combination of space to think deeply, and a space that supports deep collaboration.

What is it about your company that makes it one of the UK’s leading digital innovators?

We are applying AI in a unique way to solve some of the hardest problems in science with the aim to fundamentally benefit humanity and the planet. I think there is an impression that altruism and capitalism are mutually exclusive - we are building a company that disproves that. A company that can create both huge company and societal value.

Look out for the next Q&A with Starling Bank, another top 10 Digital Innovator, on 15 February 2018.

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