Several founders of computational systems biology firm Gene Network Sciences this week launched a new company called Via Sciences that aims to move the GNS technology into new markets.
Via Science will now serve as a holding company for GNS, which has been renamed GNS Healthcare; as well as Fina Technologies, a GNS spinoff launched two years ago with the aim of applying the company's modeling technology to the financial industry.
Via Science was financed with $13 million raised by GNS' pharmaceutical drug development activities. The company aims to use the Reverse Engineering/Forward Simulation platform, developed by GNS, to turn large quantities of data into computational models capable of predicting future outcomes across multiple industries, such as banking, insurance, supply chain management and logistics, and telecommunications.
REFS uses machine-learning algorithms and software to first identify causal relationships in complex, multi-dimensional data and then simulate billions of “what if?” hypotheses to explore novel unseen conditions and predictions.
In the life sciences arena, REFS has been used by companies like Biogen Idec and Johnson & Johnson, which have used the platform to develop models used to discover new drug targets. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have also used the platform to conduct a study on breast cancer mechanisms.
Under the new business structure, GNS Healthcare will continue to use the REFS platform for drug discovery and will maintain its relationships with customers in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries as well as with health insurance companies and healthcare providers.
In addition, GNS Healthcare plans to broaden its focus toward "the payer and provider side of the equation," CEO Colin Hill told BioInform. This includes what happens after drugs are approved, how the drugs are best utilized in patient care in hospitals, and how they are paid for.
"Our big focus is still matching drugs to patients but … not just for stratifying patients in clinical trials through biomarkers and treatment algorithms," he explained. "We are also applying this in the health insurance and patient care settings, where we are trying to optimize the matching of drugs to patients … in a more patient-centric versus drug-centric fashion."
Although the drug discovery industry is large, it only accounts for about 10 percent to 12 percent of the overall healthcare system, Hill said. As a result, "a lot of the impact on healthcare has to come from the actual application of these drugs and discoveries to patients."
There are other variables that influence patient health outcomes, and payers and providers have access to this data in the course of doing business, Hill noted. Another reason for focusing on this segment of the market, he said, is because "the time scale in which predictive power … can be acted upon" is much shorter than the seven- to 10-year cycles required for pharmaceutical drug development.
Hill is a co-founder of GNS and Via and will continue to serve as CEO of both firms.
Other GNS managers who will serve at Via include Thomas Neyarapally, senior vice president of corporate development at GNS, who will hold the same title at the holding company; and Bruce Church, vice president of Bionumerics at GNS, who will serve as vice president of numerics at Via.
Neyarapally and Church will continue to assist in some efforts at GNS Healthcare but will perform their duties as employees of Via Science, Hill said.
Currently, Via Science is "exploring the landscape" for additional "data-rich verticals," Hill said.
Specifically, he said, the company is considering industries "where we see our technology having a competitive advantage, where the data is becoming really cheap and plentiful and/or there are new datasets being brought to bear," as well as industries "where we can monetize the predictive power on a relatively short time scale and within a business model that really makes sense and is scalable."
He explained that there are many similarities between gene networks and networks in the financial markets, for example, and that the REFS platform could be used to "unravel" the network structures in financial markets as well as those of other industries.
As its first move into new markets, GNS created Fina Technologies to apply its technology in the financial industry two years ago with the aid of investments from several venture capital companies, including a $4.5 million Series A round last December.
Hill said that Fina is "performing well" but could not provide additional information about revenues and customers.
He noted that the positive experience with Fina led GNS to consider expanding the market for the REFS technology even further. In addition to the oft-cited fact that the volume of data is increasing exponentially in many industries, "the fact that we were able to bridge, with this machine-learning and simulation technology, all the way from genomic-based drug development to quantitative financial trading was telling us something very interesting about complex systems," Hill said. "We decided that there would likely exist other industry sectors that would benefit greatly … from this kind of inference of the underlying cause-and-effect relationships [in] data."
Hill said that in addition to serving as the holding company for GNS Healthcare and Fina, Via Science is intended to be the "vehicle by which we would explore applications of the technology into other data-rich industries and do proof-of-concept and -value studies" as well as "launch new companies."
This model, Hill said, will enable the firm to set domain experts to the task of applying the REFS technology through Via's vertically oriented subsidiaries. In addition, it will address the need for outside financing and dedicated management teams that could drive "ideas past proof-of-concept" for particular applications.
Hill added that the current structure will also allow outside investors to participate in a way that "makes sense for all entities involved."
He noted that both healthcare and trading "require some real amount of domain expertise" and that "people who are experts at a really high level at both genomic-based drug development and cancer and arthritis and multiple sclerosis as well being experts in the trading of currencies at 20 minute time intervals don’t exist."
This structure also allows the parent company, Via Science, to focus on its mission, including identifying "other high-value applications of the technology outside of healthcare and quantitative financial trading."
Moving forward, Hill says he doesn’t expect to have to make a lot of changes to REFS to adapt it for other industries because it's already "been forced to scale to different levels and to different capacities" as a result of its applications in both healthcare and finance.