Flagship Pioneering, the venture capital firm behind Moderna and many other biotech firms, has unveiled another start-up called Montai Health. The new company uses computational tools to search for chronic disease treatments among the vast number of compounds in the human diet. Montai starts life with $50 million in series A funding from Flagship.
Chronic diseases usually require chronic treatments. Given people’s dependence on such medications, it’s imperative that they are safe for long-term use.
Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Montai is betting that treatments already exist among the more than 100,000 molecules that humans have long consumed as food, supplements, or traditional medicines. These molecules are demonstrably safe. The main challenge is to match the right one to the right disease, based on the biological pathway the molecule takes.
That means scientists need a molecular understanding of what happens as substances traverse the human body: the metabolic reactions they undergo and their interactions with the motley assortment of microbes they encounter in the human gut.
Montai subscribes to the adage “food is medicine.” Using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the startup screens digital compound libraries for candidates with therapeutic potential. In parallel, the company verifies the compounds’ biochemical roles in the lab.
“We only understand 1% of the foods we eat,” says Margo Georgiadis, who is cofounder and CEO of Montai and also a CEO-partner of Flagship. “What Montai is really doing is systematically understanding and mapping the bioactivity of all of these molecules.”
Silvio Waschina, a bioinformatician at the University of Kiel who isn’t involved with the start-up, says the approach makes sense. “There’s a lot of diversity in food molecules,” he says. “If we screen for more molecules that are part of our diet, I think there’s a potential to use this information to also seek which molecules are affecting which disease-related pathway.”
Montai is advancing 3 lead programs into the clinic. Its initial focus is on inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Georgiadis was previously CEO of Ancestry.com, which uses AI to reconstruct human genealogies from historical records and genetic testing databases. Having witnessed the power of AI to draw connections from massive amounts of data, she says she’s excited to use AI to solve another problem—this time in the healthcare field.
“With technology, we can unlock these cool new ways to rethink how we solve these problems,” Georgiadis says. “AI and machine learning are a tool. How you apply it is where the magic happens.”