Bayer backs 11 digital health and AI startups

Pharma giant Bayer is pursuing ambitious collaborations with Longevity-based companies, but Roundup pressure continues to mount.

Bayer AG, the multinational pharmaceutical and life sciences company, is further expanding its reach into the digital health sector through a series of collaborations with 11 startups. The deals, made through the German pharma’s G4A (formerly titled “Growth For Applications”) programme, span a broad sweep of areas in oncology, ophthalmology, pulmonology, radiology, digital therapeutics and cardiovascular health.

The company revealed that the 11 participants were chosen out of 750 applicants from 65 countries, and are to receive funding and research assistance from Bayer, with the way also being paved for longer-term collaborations to commercialise any future products.

The 11 are divided into two tracks inside the G4A programme. The “Growth Track” grants early stage startups €75,000 and provides them with collaborative space at Bayer’s pharma headquarters in Berlin.

Longevity.Technology: All of Bayer’s new collaborations sit on the higher end of the technology readiness scale, here’s our assessment of their TRL scores:

Out of the 11, the companies in this track are the UK’s Okko Health (who are developing smartphone software for remote health monitoring), US based Litesprite, Upside Health and BioLum Sciences (who are, respectively, creating mobile games for stress management, analysing airway inflammation and developing an app for chronic pain management), India’s Wellthy Therapeutics (a machine-learning platform that ‘nudges’ users to make behavioural changes) and Germany’s Viscotec (a handheld, home-based OCT scanner for macular degeneration and Glaucoma).

The “Advanced Track” of the programme is for the co-creation of commercial deals, including incremental milestone-based payments. The companies from the 11 on this track are the US’s Prevencio Med (who are developing algorithms to predict heart disease risk by blood), the UK’s Blackford Analysis (who provide medical image analysis apps), Canadian NeuroTracker (who make cognitive training programmes), Kenya’s Carepay (a mobile health payment platform) and Nigerian RelianceHMO (a telemedical health insurance company).

This announcement has been made in the same week as one declaring that the company will build its collaboration with UK based Sensyne Health into a fully-fledged hub in its LifeHub network. The hub will be located in Reading’s Green Park, in the Thames Valley area, and will specialise in AI-enabled radiology and imaging for disease detection and drug discovery.

“We firmly believe that artificial intelligence has transformative potential for healthcare, leading to enhancements in prediction, prevention and personalised treatments,” Kemal Malik, a board member for innovation at Bayer, said in a statement.

He continued: “LifeHub UK’s roadmap is a perfect fit to Bayer’s Open Innovation strategy, which is designed to leverage places, programmes and partnerships — such as strategic alliances and joint ventures — in the life sciences fields of pharmaceuticals and agriculture.”

The evolving strategy of the pharmaceuticals giant has been of interest for a while. Bayer’s full acquisition of BlueRock Therapeutics in August signalled an ever-deepening commitment to the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) therapies found within BlueRock’s pipeline, and a shift towards the regenerative therapies that could alter Pharma’s focus to a Longevity one if they are seen to succeed. But this was a bold decision at the time — as only one iPSC therapy has so far been FDA approved  — and is unlikely to mature fast enough to assist Bayer’s traversal across the perilous legal terrain the pharma giant is currently treading.

Bayer shares have plummeted by nearly 30% since last August as it contends with a seemingly endless hailstorm of legal claims alleging that its glysophate-based weed killer Roundup (acquired in its 2016 merger with Monsanto) has been giving people cancer. The legal avalanche lost Werner Baumann, Bayer’s CEO, a no-confidence vote in April, and there are growing calls by some to split up the Pharma giant.

Bayer is currently negotiating a rumoured multi-billion dollar legal settlement to the glysophate cases, but as it does the storm only seems to intensify — a statement from the company this week has said that it expects to see a “significant surge” in the number of plaintiff filings made over the third quarter. The advanced TRL scores we can give these Longevity collaborations are especially interesting in this context. Bayer’s collaborations are all in emerging Longevity categories, but it appears to be to diversifying its portfolio to include stakes in companies with a quicker route to market, providing it with more immediate hands-on-deck for the choppy seas it faces.

Image: Piotr Swat / Shutterstock.com

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