Why the co-founder of Baidu is bringing his life sciences start-up to Abu Dhabi

Biomap will focus on drug discovery for age-related diseases under a new agreement with Abu Dhabi's AI research university, MBZUAI

RNA is extracted from samples at Biomap's laboratory in Beijing. Photo: Biomap
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An artificial intelligence and life sciences start-up created by the co-founder of Baidu, China's search engine giant, will establish a research laboratory in Abu Dhabi, as the venture eyes business development opportunities outside China and the US.

Earlier this month, Biomap signed an agreement with Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), the emirate's dedicated AI research university, to establish a research partnership and biocomputing lab.

The work between the two parties will focus on drug discoveries for age-related diseases and new enzymes to help tackle oil spills.

For Biomap, Abu Dhabi can serve as an international gateway to important markets like Egypt, parts of Africa and Europe, Biomap's vice president of strategic development Jiarun Qu told The National.

The company is enticed by the diverse demographics that make up the Middle East and North Africa, where there are “a lot of unmet medical needs”, she said.

The US life sciences market is “too crowded” and investment offices in the Gulf are open to opportunities in this growing sector, she added.

Biomap, which has headquarters in Beijing and San Francisco, is also raising bridge funding.

The start-up, founded in 2020, raised $100 million in a series A round, according to Ms Qu, and is seeking between $200 million and $400 million to fund its next stage of growth, at an undisclosed valuation.

Drug discovery and development has always relied on “chance and serendipity”, according to the medical journal, Nature.

Less than 1 in 10 potential drugs that make it to clinical trials progress beyond the first of the four phases, and it takes up to 15 years and costs an average of $2 billion to bring a drug to market.

But AI is now playing a critical role in improving the chances of identifying new drug candidates for commercialisation — and money is pouring in to fund new entrants in this expanding life sciences market.

“By eliminating some of the guesswork from the process, AI promises to cut the cost and timeline,” Nature reports.

Biomap has a competitive advantage.

Its founder, Robin Li, is a computer science pioneer.

He founded Baidu in January 2000 and developed it as China’s largest search engine and a leading AI platform company.

The company went public on the Nasdaq exchange in 2005.

In 2013, Mr Li turned his attention to AI research and development.

He established Biomap to develop a business model for AI-powered drug discovery. The company gets heavily discounted access to Baidu's supercomputing centre, according to Ms Qu.

Biomap, which has about 30 university research partnerships around the world, focuses on building an AI engine and data collection capabilities to find treatments for difficult diseases and energy sustainability.

“We’re thrilled to be partnering with world-class AI universities like MBZUAI, and working alongside top local talents,” Ms Qu said.

“By bringing together our experimental expertise with MBZUAI’s cutting-edge AI technology and life science research, we can supercharge the application of AI large-scale models in the life science industry. And that means we can help improve human health.”

Updated: April 03, 2023, 5:53 AM