“Here I am just sitting in this house and I’m able to predict a cure to measles,” co-founder of Atomwise Alex Levy tells me over the phone from his apartment in Mountain View, Calif.
Atomwise, a health tech startup in the current Y Combinator batch, has launched more than a dozen projects in the last year to find cures for both common and orphan diseases – diseases that would otherwise be too expensive and time-intensive to tackle. It’s working with IBM to find a cure to Ebola and with Dalhousie University in Canada to search for a measles treatment. Levy says the startup went through 8.2 million compounds to find potential cures for multiple sclerosis in a matter of days.
. . .“It’s like having a virtual super intelligent brain that can analyze millions of molecules and potential interactions in days instead of years,” Levy says. . .“You still have to test but you take out all the guesswork before you get started.”
OK, guys, this is what’s known as hubris. That’s a term from the ancient Greeks, and it translates to something like “overconfident pride” in modern usage, and it’s a good way to summon the goddess Nemesis. We get to meet her a lot in this business. Retribution lands on us several days a week around here in drug research, as you will note from our success rates in the clinic. But this sort of “Gosh, I’m curing diseases right here at my kitchen table” talk is pushing it even further, inviting a visit from another ancient Greek chick, the goddess Atë. She’s in charge of delusional folly, and pitches in on the retribution as well. Atë’s the one that Shakespeare has helping out Caesar’s spirit in Mark Antony’s speech, you know, cry “Havoc” and let slip the dogs of war and all that stuff.
What I’m getting at here is that this interview is the kind of publicity you don’t need. The sorts of people that you’re going to have to work with to get a drug project off the ground are going to roll their eyes (at best) in reaction to it, and it’s going to be hard to get anyone to take you seriously if you go on in this vein. This work is hard enough as it is, without making it even harder.
Update, from the comments: “Alex Levy here, the fellow quoted in the piece, and longtime Pipeline reader. To Derek and most commenters, thanks for the critique. Simply put: we agree. We’re always looking for better ways to communicate about Atomwise, and computational drug discovery generally. It’s challenging to help the press and public differentiate hits from cures, and evidence from proof. What a system like Atomwise actually does can be pretty opaque to a general audience.
We’re skeptical scientists too, and do extensive retrospective and prospective validation studies internally. We hope to publish more as time goes on, and are excited to share those results with the community here. Wouldn’t it be nice if Atomwise works even half as well as it sounds on TechCrunch?”