As history has shown, innovation in biology is really hard. Long timelines and expensive, unexpected failures are hallmarks of the biopharmaceutical and diagnostics industry. Software has been attempting to disrupt the industry for decades with limited success, for a variety of reasons. But recent advances — like the emergence of machine and deep learning in biology — are changing how we discover and develop treatments and diagnostics. Which is why, in 2015, Andreessen Horowitz launched a $200 million bio fund.
Historically, biology was too complex for the human mind to understand, so it required oversimplified frameworks and extensive experimentation — hacks, really — to address those limits. Artificial intelligence (that is, a machine that learns) is, by definition, uniquely suited to take in diverse data streams and derive insights from them in ways that we humans cannot. This is already happening across a wide range of applications in medicine, including ophthalmology, cardiology, dermatology, radiology, and others. We are thrilled to be supporting entrepreneurs using AI/machine learning across categories such as next-generation wearables, diagnostics, and therapeutics.
But the emergence of AI as applied to bio and software hasn’t been our only focus — we see it as part of something bigger: a foundational shift in biology from being an empirical science towards becoming an engineered discipline. AI is one example of how we can reduce the science (experimental) risk of biology and turn it into an engineering problem, by tuning and training algorithms to unravel biological complexity and advance understanding. Beyond computation, we are seeing this transition from science to engineering play out across diverse bio applications both within and beyond healthcare.
We’ve made 12 investments to date (some of which are announced and described here), spanning early detection of cancer, heart disease, and longevity to patient coordination and advances in food science removing the need for pesticides while increasing shelf life. What they all share in common — what we look for — is something that came in to accelerate the industry, much like Moore’s Law did for computing… and for the a16z bio funds, that something is the ability to engineer biology. It’s the point at which bio advances beyond empiricism — time-consuming, incomplete, unpredictable — and becomes more of an engineered discipline, allowing us to plan along a roadmap, make incremental innovations, and progress in a very systematic way. This is the point at which one can build a viable, scalable company, not just a research project.
And it’s just the beginning. We believe that bio today is where information technology was 50 years ago: on the precipice of changing nearly every industry, touching all of our lives. If information technology is about moving around bits of information, bio is about mastering our ability to move around atoms and molecules. Bio is not an industry vertical; it will be a part of every industry. Just think about it for a moment: biology and chemistry already touch everything we do, from our bodies, minds, and food, to energy, agriculture, textiles, and so many other materials too. (And just wait until we see biology eat software itself…!)
Given the immense scope and scale of the opportunities ahead, we’re excited to announce Andreessen Horowitz’ second bio fund, a $450 million investment fund focused on the intersection of biology and engineering. As with our first bio fund, we’re stage-agnostic, investing across seed to growth. We continue to be interested in computational biomedicine, applying AI and ML to diagnostics and therapeutics; new bio utilities or tools that make it easier to “read”, “write” or edit and synthesize DNA, and “execute” biology (that is, program and design organisms), as well as advance bioengineering itself; and of course, network effects that play out across the entire healthcare value chain including payers, providers, and patients.
At the very heart of it all are the extraordinary founders we get to meet and work with every day, founders who surprise us with their novel technology ideas, approaches, or even business models. These are also the founders who have skin in the game: they’re just as focused on building a company — from thoughtfully deploying capital to considering go to market — as they are immersed in research, product, and culture. The Andreessen Horowitz model — with deep functional expertise and networks operationalized across and beyond the firm — can help support these founders’ visions as they build their companies, or seek expertise and access to resources in unfamiliar domains.
In fact, we’d argue that this bio revolution — as with any technological shift — is being led by a new breed of founder: Founders that are cross-trained in biology, computer science, and other engineering disciplines, whether through work experience or education. That expertise can be from inside or outside the healthcare system; either way, it’s been hard-earned by traveling through more than one idea maze.
We believe it is precisely these founders — who can take a broader view while also bringing deep expertise to bear on a specific problem or need — that will build the next generation of iconic bio companies. If you are a prospective founder working at these intersections, please reach out — we’re excited to begin this journey towards the Century of Biology with you.
The views expressed here are those of the individual AH Capital Management, L.L.C. (“a16z”) personnel quoted and are not the views of a16z or its affiliates. Certain information contained in here has been obtained from third-party sources, including from portfolio companies of funds managed by a16z. While taken from sources believed to be reliable, a16z has not independently verified such information and makes no representations about the enduring accuracy of the information or its appropriateness for a given situation.
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