A relatively new startup called EvolutionaryScale has secured a massive tranche of cash to build AI models that can generate novel proteins for scientific research.

EvolutionaryScale on Tuesday said it has raised $142 million in a seed round led by ex-GitHub CEO, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Lux Capital, with participation from Amazon and NVentures, Nvidia’s corporate venture arm. The startup also released ESM3, an AI model it describes as a “frontier model” for biology — one that can create proteins for use in drug discovery and materials science.

“ESM3 takes a step toward a future of biology where AI is a tool to engineer from first principles, the way we engineer structures, machines, and microchips and write computer programs,” EvolutionaryScale’s co-founder and chief scientist, Alexander Rives, said in a statement.

Rives, along with Tom Secru and Sal Candido, began developing generative AI models to explore proteins while at Meta’s AI research lab, FAIR, in 2019. After their team was disbanded, Rives, Secru and Candido left Meta to continue building on the work they’d started.

Characterizing proteins can reveal the mechanisms of a disease, including ways to slow it or reverse it, while creating proteins can lead to entirely new classes of drugs, tools and therapeutics. But the current process for designing proteins in the lab is costly, both from a computational and human resource standpoint.

Designing a protein entails coming up with a structure that could plausibly perform a task inside the body or a product, then finding a protein sequence — the sequence of amino acids that make up a protein — likely to “fold” into the structure. Proteins must correctly fold into three-dimensional shapes in order to carry out their intended function.

Trained on a data set of 2.78 billion proteins, ESM3 can “reason over” the sequence, structure and function of proteins, Rives says, enabling the model to generate new proteins — à la Google DeepMind’s AlphaFold. EvolutionaryScale is making the full 98-billion-parameter model available for non-commercial use through its cloud Forge developer platform as well as releasing a smaller version of the model for offline use.

EvolutionaryScale claims that it used ESM3 to generate a new variant of green fluorescent protein (GFP), which is responsible for the glowing of jellyfish and luminescent colors in coral. A preprint paper on the company’s website details its work.

The fluorescent protein ‘esmGFP,’ created with EvolutionaryScale’s ESM3. Image Credits: EvolutionaryScale
Image Credits: EvolutionaryScale

“We’ve been working on this for a long time, and we’re excited to share it with the scientific community and see what they do with it,” Rives said.

EvolutionaryScale isn’t a charity, of course. The company, which employs roughly 20 people, told TechCrunch that it plans to make money through a combination of partnerships, usage fees and revenue sharing. EvolutionaryScale might work with pharmaceutical companies to integrate ESM3 into their workflows, for example, or revenue-share with researchers for breakthrough discoveries commercialized using ESM3.

To this end, EvolutionaryScale says that it will soon bring ESM3 and its derivatives to select AWS customers via the cloud provider’s SageMaker AI dev platform, the Bedrock AI platform and HealthOmics service. ESM3 will also be available to select customers using NVIDIA’s NIM microservices, supported with an Nvidia enterprise software license.

EvolutionaryScale says that both AWS and Nvidia customers will be able to fine-tune ESM3 using their own data.

It could be a while before EvolutionaryScale turns a profit. In the company’s pitch deck, a copy of which Forbes managed to obtain last August, EvolutionaryScale repeatedly emphasized that it could take a decade for generative AI models to help design therapies. The firm will also have to fend off competition from DeepMind’s spin-off, Isomorphic Labs, already has contracts with big pharma companies, as well as Insitro, publicly-traded Recursion, and Inceptive.

EvolutionaryScale’s big bet is scaling up its model training to incorporate data beyond proteins and create a general-purpose AI model for biotech applications.

“The incredible pace of new AI advances is being driven by increasingly large models, increasingly large data sets and increasing computational power,” an EvolutionaryScale spokesperson said. “The same holds true in biology. In research over the last five years, the ESM team has explored scaling in biology. We find that as language models scale, they develop an understanding of the underlying principles of biology, and discover biological structure and function.”

All that sounds wildly ambitious to this reporter, but having deep-pocketed investors is surely going to help.

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