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Life comes at you fast. At one point Peptone, a computational biophysics company, had been rejected by more than 150 investors. Now, it regularly receives approaches and buyout offers from big, institutional names.
The aim of founders Dr Kamil Tamiola and Dr Matthew Heberling is to build better drugs and change the standard of healthcare through translating the physics of complex proteins that dictate how the human body and other materials function.
This idea — a new theory of making drugs — has led them to be tipped by others in the market as the UK's next potential billion pound company.
Peptone is using science to build the world’s first protein engineering operating system, combining AI with computational molecular physics.
The "protein drug discovery engine" enables an automated search for non-obvious protein variants with desirable therapeutic properties and cost-effective manufacturability. The technology is already being used in a variety of pre-clinical and late-stage protein therapeutics programmes.
“Instead of going after all of these typical things that pharmaceutical companies do, we can go upstream with these molecules and target the very beginning of a cascade of terrible things that cause your body to react to something. That is the superpower we have,” says Tamiola.
For the last 50 years, scientists have believed that for proteins to have a function in human cells they need to have a structure and to be folded. Google DeepMind's AI tool AlphaFold, was considered to be a giant leap towards determining a protein’s 3D shape from its amino-acid sequence.
Peptone is coming at this problem from a different angle.
“There are a large portion of proteins in your body that have no structure, but are still biologically relevant,” says Tamiola.
These have, so far, been very difficult to study. The company’s mission is to make this process easier and understand how these types of proteins behave in life-changing diseases and drugs, not just their structure.
Proteins without a structure are particularly interesting in terms of how inflammatory diseases, such as asthma or an allergic reaction, affect the body, says Tamiola.
Combining physics, supercomputing and AI, Peptone's systems can comb through data from drug trials and work out exactly where something went wrong — mistakes are often the result of an anomaly in a protein. Doing this can help stop pharmaceutical companies from making the same mistake twice or even resurrect a drug that had been discounted as not working.
“Our dream is to build a sustainable company that brings a product to the market as an approved drug,” says Tamiola.
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Peptone raised $2.5m (£1.8m) from venture capitalists Hoxton Ventures seven months ago, from Hoxton's second fund. Four weeks after the initial fundraise the company produced data that showed their product actually works. Months on, the supercomputers are producing even more accurate data than the previous developments suggested.
“It has become evident that we have a fair chance of becoming a pharma company on our own,” says Tamiola.
The money raised so far is being used to build a lab in Switzerland, hire staff and eventually will buy new computers to develop proprietary experimental techniques. Peptone's long-term aim is to be able to conduct clinical trials off its own back.
“We are professional daydreamers. We think, conceive of things in our head and are patient. People think we are nuts, but you build something and wait 25 years and you discover something like the Higgs boson, or you send someone to the moon,” says Tamiola.
“This is a very different approach from the rest of the people in the market. We’re not looking for instant gratification.”
Another thing Tamiola also does differently to other company founders — if you're lucky he might play you a Bach prelude on the piano during a business development meeting. He has used time at home during the pandemic both to build the company and hone his performance of Baroque music, a skill he has used to woo potential funders alongside pitching supercomputers and drug development methods.
Peptone is wading into a market with a lot of cash up for grabs. According to Statista, as of end-2020, the total global pharmaceutical market was valued at about $1.27tn. This is a significant increase from 2001 when the market was valued at just $390bn.
As for competition, another company in this field, going after what Tamiola calls “intrinsically disordered proteins,” is New Equilibrium Biosciences. This company is run by Dr Virginia Burger and was founded in 2019 to discover drugs to fight cancers and neurodegenerative disorders.
Since the first fundraising round, Peptone has opened a series A fundraising round, which is currently oversubscribed.
The startup has also already announced a collaboration with Nvidia (NVDA) to scale in order to meet increasing demand from the protein therapeutics market and has multiple other collaborations in the pipeline.
The founders say that to complete its mission to bring new, innovative drugs to the market, it is open to many different paths — be that through an IPO or SPAC deal or a merger.
And it’s not just the world of pharma this new technology could help to change. “The application of the problem that we are addressing goes far beyond just making drugs,” says Tamiola.
Peptone could potentially use the technology to make a product that helps heal wounds, create a novel form of a detergent or washing powder that is biodegradable or use it in diagnostic blood testing.
Tamiola says that the general theme of the collaborations the company has been approached about so far concern the sustainability of goods.