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AI at CPhI

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
November 9, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 44


We are excited to finally publish the names of the companies that made it into C&EN’s 10 Start-Ups to Watch for 2019 (see page 28). It’s an interesting collection of young firms working on diverse solutions, including new approaches to recycling polystyrene, a water purification system based on β-cyclodextrin, and RNA-based therapies. We can’t guarantee that these organizations will make it big, but they certainly have interesting and creative technologies with the potential to change the world around them.

What is more exciting, however, is that many of the companies that made it onto the list for other years are doing really well. According to Senior Correspondent Melody Bomgardner, “Since November 2018, start-ups from the classes of 2015–18 have collectively raised more than $1.2 billion from investors.” Check out the online-only story at

While this editorial package was being assembled, a group of C&EN staff and I were attending CPhI Worldwide in Frankfurt, Germany. CPhI was celebrating 30 years of connecting the pharmaceutical industry, and for me it was 11 years since I attended my first CPhI, which incidentally was also in Frankfurt. I remember it well.

I was excited because it was the largest event of its kind that I had ever attended. Reminiscing with friends and colleagues, I laughed at myself for making a rookie mistake: I packed my schedule with back-to-back 30 min meetings. Anybody that has attended CPhI would have known that keeping up with such a timetable is virtually impossible given how spread out the booths are over the many halls that get filled with exhibitors. It can take anywhere from 15 to 30 min to get to your destination.

This time at CPhI, I had the opportunity to moderate a discussion on artificial intelligence in drug discovery to celebrate the publication of the Discovery Report on the same subject. American Chemical Society members received copies of this report with the Oct. 7 issue of C&EN. Joining me in the discussion were Kathy Gibson, chief innovation officer at CAS, a division of ACS, and Quentin Vanhaelen, director of Virtual Human Project at Insilico Medicine.

The title of the session, just as the title of the report, asked whether the AI revolution is hope or hype. The room was packed, and I was surprised that the majority of attendees voted “hope.” They all believe that AI will change the way we live our lives and do our jobs. Gibson emphasized the importance of quality data—the old “garbage in, garbage out” adage that we have heard many times is highly relevant to AI. She sees this as one of the main barriers to adoption.

To a person from the audience who asked if any drugs had been designed or created by AI, Vanhaelen explained that we are on the path to achieve this but that it has not yet been accomplished: creating a drug takes decades, and the process has multiple and complex steps; while we have been able to complete some with the help of AI, progress has been slow. Gibson said it will be important to work with regulators along the process to ensure the science does not advance without proper oversight.

Of course, there were also questions about the likelihood of jobs becoming redundant once machines take over the process. Gibson said that she had not yet seen one job being lost to a machine in the drug-discovery space and that AI would take some of the burden off scientists’ shoulders so they can concentrate on higher-value activities.

For more news from CPhI, keep an eye out for reporting by Senior Editor Rick Mullin in the coming weeks.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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