Robin Li, CEO and founder of Chinese internet giant Baidu, says he has realised a lifelong dream by entering the field of AI-enabled structure-based drug discovery (SBDD). Speaking at a conference in Suzhou earlier today, Li announced funding and partnerships for his new firm BioMap, which he says will develop a “global immunity map” and discover new drugs and treatments using AI data handling.

Li added that “the development of the biocomputing industry requires the combination of ecological and industrial expertise. One or even 100 companies may not be enough. We hope to build an open biocomputing innovation ecosystem between scientists and entrepreneurs to explore the vast no man’s land of life sciences.”

Li revealed that his interest in biocomputing was sparked more than 25 years ago when he was still working as a programmer on Wall Street. At the time, Li applied for a job in Merck’s research department and received an offer. His wife, however, stopped him from taking the job.

“She said that I couldn’t do anything there. Gene sequencing technology was very rudimentary. She said I wouldn’t be able to use my computing knowledge,” he explained.

Li also used his speech to announce that his new firm BioMap has now received funding of 1bn renminbi (approximately US$156m). BioMap is an AI-driven research and development platform focusing on precision medicine, co-founded by Baidu CEO Robin Li and former Baidu Ventures’ CEO Wei Liu in September 2020.

According to its website, the company “strives to accelerate the development of new therapeutics and diagnostic products through the integration of novel AI advancements and frontier biotechnologies.” It has cooperated with more than 50 global early-stage technology companies and scientific research teams to accelerate academic discoveries in biomedical technology.

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By GlobalData

China-based medical investment firm Viva Biotech announced a strategic collaboration agreement with BioMap at the conference, and stated that biotech firms AlxplorerBio and EPN had also signed the agreement.

The companies said that their collaboration will be based on the AI-powered biological computing engine from BioMap combined with the structure-based drug discovery (SBDD) platform from Viva Biotech.

Dr Delin Ren, President of Viva Biotech, said:

“The integration of AI deep learning technology and our SBDD technology platform is bound to have a far-reaching impact on drug design and R & D. It is expected to shorten the R & D cycle and improve the success rate of novel drug discovery.”

Li said that more than 20 years after his decision not to go into biocomputing, the picture has changed.

“Today, the field of biocomputing also has three key indicators that are growing rapidly, which together promote biocomputing to create greater value for mankind,” he said. “These three indicators are: the rapid growth of data brought by genome research, the rapid accumulation of knowledge in the process of new drug development, and the proliferation of machine learning and algorithms.”

According to GlobalData’s thematic research, technology has and will increasingly play a fundamental role in helping the healthcare sector. A recent Thematic report states: “Advances in AI and Machine Learning will significantly lower the cost of developing and testing new biotech products, and the leading players in this sector are all making significant investments in data science.”

GlobalData forecasts that the market for AI platforms for the entire healthcare industry will reach $4.3bn by 2024, up from $1.5bn in 2019. This will be driven by the use of AI by healthcare providers and payers, which is forecast to reach $2.9bn by 2024.

Li’s main business, Baidu, has clashed with the Chinese authorities in recent times. It remains the leader in Chinese search, however, and No. 2 search engine worldwide, second only to Google.