In 1928, a Scottish researcher named Alexander Fleming returned from a holiday to discover that he had accidentally grown a species of fungus called Penicillium on a Petri dish containing bacteria. The fungus, to Fleming̵
Almost a century later, Hexagon Bio wants to find more drug applications for the fungus (although this time it will be on purpose). On September 15, the company announced that it had assembled a $ 47 million Serie A circuit that would help it genetically sequence the fungus and find new breakthrough drugs. The company’s next penicillin is already there, waiting to be discovered.
“It simply came to our notice then [Hexagon] as the first of a new generation of large computation-driven pharmaceutical companies, ”said Alex Kolicic, co-founder of venture firm 8VC, which invests in the circle and is a board member of Hexagon Bio. “From day one, I thought they had really strong ambition.” The Serie A round was led by The Column Group and involved two Sigma Ventures.
The company, based in Menlo Park, started in 2017 as a spin-off from Stanford University. One of the members of the founding team is Maureen Hillenmeier, former director of Stanford’s Genomes to Natural Products program and now CEO of Hexagon. What makes Hexagon Bio unique, says Hillenmeier, is the company’s multidisciplinary approach to finding new drug candidates. “We really have world-class experience in both data science and biology, which is difficult to achieve,” she said.
Hexagon Bio uses these disciplines to sequence the genomes of fungi and find out if they have been altered to protect against disease. The company then investigated whether any of the altered genes could be used to treat human disease. This is not a fictional idea. Statins, a group of cholesterol-lowering drugs, were discovered by Japanese researcher Akira Endo in 1976, when he realized that genes in Penicillium citrinum the fungus allowed it to produce two compounds that can lower cholesterol in humans. Although the discovery was remarkable, it took Endo several years to scan fungal genomes to find these compounds.
Hexagon Bio wants to speed up the process by using artificial intelligence and gene sequencing as part of its fungal screening platform. “We could only understand by reading its genome that this fungus creates cholesterol inhibitors,” Hillenmeyer said of Endo’s discovery. Although gene sequencing was a nascent technology when Endo found statins in the 1970s, advances in low cost, but high-quality sequencing and other technological advances mean that Hexagon will be able to detect drugs for parts of Endo’s time. “It simply came to our notice then [nature] but applying artificial intelligence and data science to it, ”says Hillenmeyer.
The new capital from the A-Series round will be used to build its own database of fungal genomes, Hillenmeier said, as well as to hire people who can take newly discovered compounds through the clinical pipeline over the next few years. Although Hillenmeyer will not name any of the compounds the company has discovered so far, she says they are mostly focused on finding new drugs to treat cancer and infectious diseases, including drug-resistant fungi. One day, Hexagon Bio may even branch out from fungi and look for drugs in other types of microbes, such as bacteria. But not yet, says Hillenmeyer. “There are about 5 million fungal species on the planet, and only 5,000 have been studied so far,” she said. “This will take us a while.”