Pharma, Artificial Intelligence, BioPharma

Sanofi bets big on AI again, paying $100M to start drug R&D pact with Exscientia

Sanofi’s new alliance with artificial intelligence biotech Exscientia spans up to 15 small molecule drugs in cancer and immunology. If drugs from the partnership reach the market, Exscientia could earn as much as $5.2 billion in milestone payments.


The artificial intelligence technology of Exscientia has already produced for Sanofi a novel drug candidate in development for applications in immunology. Now the pharmaceutical giant is turning to the company again, paying $100 million in cash up front to begin a larger drug discovery alliance spanning immunology and cancer.

Under terms of the agreement announced Friday, Sanofi and Exscientia will work together to develop up to 15 novel small molecule drugs. Those molecules will come from the AI platform of Oxford, United Kingdom-based Exscientia. Though the biotech’s drug discovery approach revolves around AI, the work starts with human tissue.

According to Exscientia, disease models from cell lines, organoids, and mice can be affected by other factors that do not reflect the complexity and variety of human disease. The company uses human tissue as models to generate the data that its AI technology analyzes to find the biological indicators of disease, select the right molecules to hit those targets, and identify the patients most likely to benefit from treatment. In the announcement of the new alliance, Exscientia founder and CEO Andrew Hopkins said that testing drug candidates against patient tissue has the potential to offer better accuracy compared to mouse models.

When Sanofi and Exscientia first began working together in 2016, the focus was on finding targets for metabolic disease. In 2019, Sanofi exercised its option on one of the targets identified by Exscientia’s technology. The drug is a bispecific small molecule designed to address two different targets in inflammation and fibrosis, the biotech said in its regulatory filings. Depending on the development progress of that molecule, Exscientia could earn up to $250 million in milestone payments.

The new alliance is structured similarly, though it spans more molecules. Sanofi and Exscientia will collaborate on the identification and selection of their targets. Depending on the progress of the research, Exscientia could earn up to $5.2 billion in milestone payments. If Sanofi commercializes any of the drugs stemming from the alliance, Exscientia would receive royalties from sales of those medicines.

“Sanofi’s collaboration with Exscientia aims to transform how we discover and develop new small molecule medicines for cancer and immune-mediated diseases,” Frank Nestle, Sanofi’s global head of research and chief scientific officer, said in a prepared statement. “Application of sophisticated AI and machine learning methods will not only shorten drug discovery timelines, but will also help to design higher quality and better targeted medicines for patients.”

Sanofi is just one of several partners Exscientia has signed on since its 2012 launch. The biotech has alliances with Bristol Myers Squibb, Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, EQRx, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But Exscientia also aspires to develop its own drugs, and the company completed an IPO in October to finance the development of its preclinical and early clinical drug pipeline.

For its part, Sanofi has been spreading its AI bets. In November, the pharma giant made a $180 million equity investment in AI and precision medicine startup Owkin. In addition to that investment, Sanofi paid the startup $90 million to begin a three-year partnership focused on developing new drugs for four types of cancer.

Other big pharma companies are also committing cash to AI-based drug initiatives. Amgen announced Thursday it is paying Generate Biomedicines $50 million up front to begin a protein drug research alliance spanning five targets. On Friday, synthetic biology company Absci added Merck to its roster of pharma partners in an alliance that covers up to three targets.

Photo: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg, via Getty Images