How is Flagship Pioneering building biotechs with machine learning?

TL;DR Flagship Pioneering applies a platform technology-based strategy. Machine learning is their next platform tech. There are lessons on how to apply platform technologies, especially in the NASCENT area of machine learning.

Flagship commercializes platform technologies that transform human health.

Flagship Pioneering is the most interesting biotech venture fund. The combination of their financial results, scientific creativity, and operational execution combine to provide unexpected, routinely interesting results. More importantly, they drive transformative outcomes for human health.

Flagship achieves transformative results through applying a platform technology strategy to biotechnology innovation. If you have taken the Moderna vaccine, you are the beneficiary of the Flagship Pioneering platform technology strategy.

The term platform is perhaps the most overused, least understood business term of the last 25 years. Instead of litigating the finer points, let’s look at the way that Flagship defines and focuses on platforms:

At Flagship, we are singularly focused on creating bioplatforms… we define bioplatforms as a new biotechnology or a new understanding of biology that allows for the intentional and repeatable generation of multiple medicines across different therapeutic areas and/or agricultural and sustainability products.

Flagship identifies promising technologies and translates them into ambitious companies that can repeatably create medical miracles. These technologies form a platform on top of which of the company consistently drives value creation. I love the focus on intentional and repeatable value creation. That is what platform enables when done well. Most entities claiming a platform approach cannot lay claim to both elements of intentionality and replicability. Flagship can, as we will examine in this article.

Moderna exemplifies the the platform technology-based strategy that Flagship takes:

The most powerful example of this strategy is Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, which was its seventh prophylactic vaccine program. Building on 10 years of platform development, Moderna was able to create its mRNA-1273 vaccine within 48 hours after the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein sequence was received and was granted emergency use approval in less than a year, helping the company to save millions of lives and create over $100 billion in value for shareholders within 11 years of its founding in 2010 – an unprecedented record of exponential value creation in the biotech sector.

Flagship identified mRNA engineering as the platform technology underpinning Moderna and pulled together the capital, talent, time, and resources needed to create a company that could realize the totality of the value of the platform technology. This wasn’t easy. Look back at this 2018 story to see how skeptical critics were of Moderna.

Additional examples of this platform-technology based strategy Kaleido Biosciences (microbiome) and Rubius Therapeutics (cell therapy).

Flagship has proven applying their platform technology strategy to biotech venture creation works.

Flagship is applying machine learning as its next big platform technology.

Machine learning is the next big platform technology for Flagship. In a blog post on the Flagship website, Armen Mkrtcyhan and Karim Lakhani write:

Moving forward, the exponential increase in biological data generation, computing power and AI model performance will accelerate the pace of discovery and deepen our understanding of biological systems.

This foundational belief has pioneered a class of machine learning-enabled Flagship biotech companies. Let’s take a look at each of the Flagship companies for which machine learning is a platform technology in the next part.