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AI drug discovery startup latest to go public via $2.8B SPAC merger

AI drug discovery startup Valo announced it’s going public via a $2.8 billion SPAC merger with Khosla Ventures, expected to close in Q3 2021. Here’s what it does: Valo’s primary product Opal Computational Platform uses AI to identify new drug targets within a few weeks compared with the traditional process to pinpoint target areas, which can take up to one year.

Big names in pharma have recently inked partnerships with AI drug discovery startups to boost R&D—likely due to difficulties hiring the talent needed to spearhead AI projects.

  • For example, last month, pharma giant Bristol-Myers Squibb revealed it’s partnering with AI for drug discovery firm Exscientia to accelerate the discovery of “small molecule” therapeutic drug candidates in oncology and immunology. This is likely an attempt to keep pace with its peers, which are also tapping into AI to speed up R&D: In March, Pfizer teamed up with Iktos to apply the startups’ AI software to Pfizer’s small-molecule drug design programs, for instance.
  • Pharma companies are opting to partner with the likes of Valo versus building their own in-house teams, likely since it’s slow and hard to recruit the right talent. The head of innovation at pharma company GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare, Subroto Mukherjee, says it has “a limited data science skilled pool in the market, [which] delays hiring and getting them up to speed and scale multiple AI projects.”

Valo is one of the first AI drug discovery startups to go public, but we think we’ll see more take the public leap as the AI drug discovery market matures.

  • Valo’s competitors have scored massive funding hauls over the past year to fuel expansion—the public leap is the next step to access a much larger pool of funding to scale their tech. For example, in March, Insitro nabbed a whopping $400 million in VC funding; In April, Exscientia scored $225 million; and in September 2020, XtalPi raised $319 million from investors. But going public typically helps health tech companies raise much more than one private funding haul alone: Telehealth company Amwell raised $742 million in its September IPO, for instance.
  • We may even see a massive M&A deal forge between a pharma giant and a startup like Valo. Pharma’s vote of confidence in AI drug discovery startups has made them need-to-have for drug innovation—which means a company like Pfizer or GlaxoSmithkline could scoop up a company like Valo over the next few years to bring their AI capabilities in-house.