Thomas Kaiser On Artificial Intelligence in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Katie Hopewell  /  Charleston Digital Corridor
Avicenna's,  Tom KaiserAvicenna's, Tom Kaiser
Avicenna's, Pieter Burger and Tom KaiserAvicenna's, Pieter Burger and Tom Kaiser
Avicenna's, Tom KaiserAvicenna's, Tom Kaiser

Moving from Texas to Atlanta to Oxford and now, to Charleston, and shifting from academia to professional chemistry to entrepreneurship, Thomas Kaiser's intellectual journey highlights both the cerebral and economic value of a scientific background as an entrepreneur and reveals the enduring need for exploration by scientists at large.

What began as a pursuit towards being a mathematician, then a physician, then a professional chemist and drug developer, has now evolved into his company, Avicenna Biosciences Inc., which employs artificial intelligence to assess the organic properties in varying medicines and to aid in drug discovery. Kaiser, in telling his story, emphasizes the need for adaptability when marketing scientific findings and advocates for an altruistic desire to discover, as a basis for scientific endeavors.

This series is brought to you by Charleston County Economic Development.

Would you like to start by telling me a little bit about your background? Where you're from, where you went to college, what you studied as an undergrad?

I was born and raised in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and spent all of my childhood there. When I went to undergrad, I attended the University of Tulsa, so I moved away for a little bit. There, I studied biochemistry and mathematics, so I was initially doing two majors. The goal was to eventually go into medicine, and I got super interested in chemistry at that time. I was planning on going into an MD PhD program.

One of the frustrating things at that time was that I was instructed to not train as a pure chemist because the training was too long–most PhDs in synthesis are five to six years–so I felt that, if I had to choose between being a physician and being a chemist, I wanted to be a chemist. Then, I went to Texas A&M for my PhD and there I did total synthesis–or the synthesis of natural products and how to build molecules.

It's a pretty interesting field, seeing how you actually assemble a molecule without touching it. I also did some organometallics; and at that point, I knew I wanted to get into medicinal chemistry, so I went for drug design. You really have to have an understanding of organic chemistry in order to design drugs, due to their organic properties.

I was looking around for where I wanted to go next, and I applied to Dennis Liotta's lab in Atlanta because he's probably the most successful academic medicinal chemist out there. I think he's got up to ten drugs on the market and he's done a lot for HIV. He also founded the company called Pharmasset, that discovered the cure for Hepatitis-C, so lots of viral 'stuff' going on there. I knew that's where I wanted to go to learn how to do antiviral drug design; eventually I joined this lab as a postdoc and took over the antiviral group within the lab and led that for a couple of years.

At that point, I regretted not getting my medical degree. I spent a long time talking with my wife about it, asking 'how do we want to deal with this? Is it a wise decision to go back and become a physician?' Ultimately, she said 'fine.'

It's kind of a funny story when I was looking for programs. If you were an experimental PhD, there were programs that let you do an MD in three years. Columbia University had one of these programs, and I told my wife, Michelle, "Look, in three years we can be in and out," and she said, "Absolutely not - I like Atlanta, I'm not living in New York." At that point, I went back to the drawing board and British medical schools started popping up, and I actually got the opportunity to attend the University of Oxford for Medicine. My wife was so surprised, thinking that we would stay in the southern United States because New York was too much of a culture shock - but she ended up in the United Kingdom instead.

What does your company do?

We're an artificial intelligence company that does drug development. We take drugs that have problems and redesign them in light of some machine-running techniques that we've built, and we try to fix those problems.

Let's say you have an old drug: somebody's done a clinical trial and it was found to have new utilities - it was designed for indication X and now it's found that it helps with indication Y - the problem is, maybe it's not wholly bioavailable. It was fine for indication X in short-term therapy use, but it needs to be able to work for long term therapy for indication Y, so you redesign it to make it more amenable to the therapeutic process. Or, if there's a drug that has a toxicity problem and it precludes an indication, we can eliminate the toxicity to actually get it into clinical trials. So that's what we do: drug design and drug development

What is your cause, or the exigence, behind your research and all your efforts?

The exploration of the universe and the alleviation of suffering. I think most scientists agree with that - that's what motivates scientists.

What was your most memorable early professional experience?

As an organic chemist, you deal with a lot of exotic states of matter, so my most memorable professional experience was probably being on fire.

To explain: if you want to deal with organometallic species, you have to rid it of oxygen and water in the solvent. We had a sodium metal still, which you use to distill the solvent from this sodium pellet. And this system - we didn't know this at the time - didn't regulate the internal pressure appropriately, and it blew up. It caught all the sodium on fire, and I was caught on fire as a consequence because I was standing right next to it.

What did you initially see yourself doing as a professional? Did you lean towards entrepreneurship or academia when you began your journey?

I started off with the idea of just being a mathematician. I drifted further and further away from that in my training when I came back to it with artificial intelligence. I think I wanted to be in academia initially; but, if you want to find medicines, you have to do it in industry. The amount of money necessary for that is just prohibited from academic lives. We have academic interests that we like to explore on the sides, but the priority lies in finding new medicines.

What kind of physician did you initially want to be?

I started off wanting to work with infectious diseases; I've always been fascinated with infectious diseases. But I shifted more towards pathology. The only downside to that is that you don't see as many patients as a pathologist, but you deal with the fundamental principles of disease: why things happen and the classification of disease, which is really useful if you're a medicinal chemist. If you're trying to design a drug to treat a disease, you really need to understand why that disease is problematic.

What inspired you to start your business?

We were at the right place at the right time; we had some evidence that we were truly on a good path. We started it to really help facilitate drug development. So we had some core technology that we built when [my business partner,] Pieter, and I were postdocs. We built the company so we could have a conduit for the development of drugs. We just needed a vehicle.

How does AI play into your business?

Basically, your query space is quite large when you're trying to find a drug-like compound–it's an unintelligible number, estimated to be somewhere around , so the AI trims down the evaluation space. We can break down from billions to millions down to maybe 70,000 possibilities, and we take from the top and explore them to see if they work the way you think they will.

What obstacles have you faced on your journey, and how did you overcome them?

I think the biggest obstacle is the amount of time that it takes; it's been a stressor on my relationship with my wife but I'm incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful wife. Trying to deal with that has probably been the biggest obstacle; we move so much - I even spent a couple of months in Japan as a visiting scholar - so, I've been away a lot.

The other biggest obstacle is: how do you know you're even doing something relevant? You can ask a question, but does it have any meaning in this universe? I think it can be emotionally exhausting when you think you're on the right path and it blows up and you have to start over.

What do you see as the future of your company?

To grow and actually get drugs on the market. We actually have a couple of compounds that are moving into animal trials, and we think they'll actually turn into drugs. But we just have to keep cranking that wheel to find new medicine.

What brought you to Charleston?

My business partner Pieter did. His wife is actually a pediatric radiologist, and she was not moving on account of our shenanigans, so I'm here because of them.

How has it been building your team in Charleston?

It's been great; I've had a good time. It's a very nice place to live and work, I like the people, the food is great, there's lots to do outside of work.

What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?

I visited Pieter seven years ago, and it was really sleepy here, in that regard. There wasn't much going on, the CDC didn't exist, so it seems to be growing explosively.

What level of engagement do you have with the Charleston tech community?

Zero probably. We keep a low profile because we're still kind of in stealth mode. Most of the interesting things we have to say, we can't really talk about because of intellectual property. That's the downside of doing drug development.

You need to be able to raise enough money that you can run the clinical trials; phase one is around $10 to $15 million, phase 2 is $20 to $50 million, phase 3 is the real issue: it's somewhere around $300 to $600 million. The only way to achieve that is to attract capitalists; you need to protect what you do, so you can have appealing intellectual property.

The only way to find new medicines is to patent them, and the people who invest money want to make money, that's the reason we don't really talk much with other companies.

What were your misconceptions about being an entrepreneur?

We knew we were going to have a hard time attracting talent, because we don't have any brand recognition, and I think that's been more problematic than expected. I guess I underestimated how hard it was going to be to get scientists to join us, but that's hopefully changing.

What do you look for in the people you hire?

Inquisitiveness, do you eat and breathe this–'this' being medicinal chemistry–and the ability to be critical of your own ideas without being harsh. Those are the three key things to me.

What's your day-to-day routine like?

Wake up, come here, annoy Pieter, go home, and hangout with my wife, maybe watch a movie or play some games or have a beer, go to bed, wake up and do it all over again.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs or new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?

Be skeptical of your own ideas and make sure you can correctly position them in light of the other ideas out there. Also, just have a good time. Pursue it for the sake of discovering and see if you can find something new, because that's really where innovation comes from.


Mac or PC? PC

Favorite App? Pandora, I listen to a lot of music

Favorite Book/Podcast? I love Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, it's an absurd and hilarious story.