Spotting novel antibodies using AI: Aridni and Trisha

29 October, 2021

Antibody therapies have been fast gaining traction through the years. Its landmark use case was in 1986 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first monoclonal antibody therapy to prevent transplant rejection in patients.

While effective in improving patient outcomes and lower side effects, these antibodies are distinct, large, and complex, making it incredibly difficult to accurately determine the optimal set of antibodies for the wide spectrum of diseases.

Traditional laboratory-based systems are often laborious, costly, and prone to failure. Even after screening up to thousands of antibody candidates, these methods only yield a 10% success rate going into the clinical trial stage.

Aridni Shah and Trisha Chatterjee who met at Entrepreneur First (“EF”) decided to work together to tackle this colossal challenge. They believe that leveraging artificial intelligence technology can game-change the antibody screening process and founded immunitoAI.

We spoke to them to learn more about their EF journey and their shared aspirations for their biotechnology company.

Go Big or Go Home

“My desire to be solving the hardest problems in science led me to a career in academia, and it felt like an obvious fit then,” shares Aridni Shah, “I didn’t set out to start a company.”

But while she was pursuing her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences, she started to feel increasingly inhibited.

“I realised that academia might not be the most conducive place to drive real, tangible impact. I don’t exactly have much autonomy, and I would probably be spending significant time chasing grants after grants just to run my own research,” explains Aridni “And I thought, you know, why not go big, take a big risk and see how that goes.”

“I clearly don’t see myself walking down the postdoc path and then applying for multiple faculty positions.”

She took the plunge and left academia in her final year.

“I have solid technical knowledge but have never worked in a commercial environment before.

It felt like EF was a very good platform to build a company from scratch, and so I applied and joined.” 

Trisha Chatterjee, on the other hand, came from a computer science background, having worked in startups as a software developer.

“I was familiar with the tech ecosystem but never thought of going out there to start something out on my own,” tells Trisha. 

However, when she started engaging in side projects, her inner ambitions suddenly awakened. 

“I began to be excited at building things. I realised that starting from zero was not easy, it takes undivided, dedicated attention, and nothing less.”

Impacted, she simply quit her job and left for Bangalore, without any concrete plans.

While exploring potential ideas with friends, she heard about EF.

“It was like freshwater, fresh news for me. The timing could not have been better.

I saw EF as my one chance, one shot at building from nothing, and I grabbed that opportunity.”


Adopting a Disruptive Mindset to Co-founder Matching

Both Aridni and Trisha came to Entrepreneur First thinking that they knew what they wanted.

Aridni was bent on starting something within the biotechnology industry, while Trisha was after any industry that she could put her computational skills to use.

Although they applied the right strategies – reaching out to connect with fellow cohort members early, they found themselves struggling to find their optimal match.

“Connecting and speaking with cohort members was the easy part,” tells Aridni, “Choosing and convincing someone with a strong business background to work together was another matter altogether – none of them had any interest in starting a company in the biotech space.”

She went up to her then Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Prajwal Bhat, saying, “There seems to be no one who wants to take the risk of getting into biotech.”

“Prajwal offered me a surprising advice: ‘why not go and find someone with that computational technical edge since you already have the domain knowledge in biological sciences,’ ” recounts Aridni.

“I had limited myself, by insisting that I have to find that business-minded co-founder. 

I made the decision to let go of that and changed my co-founder search strategy.” 

Meanwhile, Trisha was having difficulties of her own. 

“EF is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I knew I had to do something different. I need to find a complementary co-founder for my new business,” recalls Trisha, “The problem is, I work well with like-minded software developers, but beyond that circle, I have no clue, I have never done it before.” 

She was persistent and kept on trying.

Finally, after her ‘break-up’ with another cohort member, she decided to reconnect with Aridni, and this time they were ready. 

Their fruitful conversation flowed with ideas and Trisha’s interest was piqued. They chose to come together to ideate and create artificial intelligence-based solutions to revolutionise the biotech space. 


Edge-based Ideation

With their end goal in mind, they felt confident that they would be able to design tools for effective antibody discovery and screening. However, it was more challenging to connect it to a suitable application.

Through the support and advice of Prajwal Bhat and the EF team, they learned about the customer development process – it’s critically important to start with finding out the biggest pain points customers’ face. 

They began speaking with directors and CEOs of pharmaceutical companies, molecular biology companies, and researchers to learn more. 

“Asking the right questions was another essential skill we picked up,” shares Aridni, “We used this tool to keep on refining our question sets with the answers we were getting.”

“This iterative process enabled us to narrow down the four usual application spaces – academia research, diagnostic, veterinary, and therapies.

And we decided to go with therapies – it’s where we had the biggest use case, with the largest data set for our AI technology.”


Getting the Proof-of-Concept ready

They next went on to building their ‘proof-of-concept’ and preparing for future investor meetings.

Their Venture Partner, Venkat Raju, worked closely with them, guiding them to think deeply about what they wanted to achieve with immunitoAI.

These regular discussions formed the foundation to designing the North Star metric and the subsequent intentional and achievable time-based goals to pave a viable pathway to build a ready prototype to inspire investors. 

“One of the biggest lessons Venkat taught us was to have more quantitative and measurable objectives, like looking to achieve 50% accuracy by this week, improving to 60% by the next and so forth,” recalls Aridni “ All of these helped us stay focused and to know if we are ahead or behind our targets.”

Additionally, when they encountered setbacks accessing sufficient data sources to build their prototype, the EF team also came in to help, connecting them with the right people. Joe Ros, a Partner at EF, for instance, reached out to David Lunn from Revena, a global network that supports early-stage companies. Venkat also gave them alternative suggestions like generating synthetic data. 

With the EF team’s robust support network, Aridni and Trisha were able to navigate several hurdles in their early founder days, and anchor all their efforts on continuously breaking down their problem statements into smaller bite-sized goals, act on them and repeat. 

They were well equipped and put in a good position by Demo Day. 

Launching the startup

immunitoAI was one of the eight cutting-edge startups that secured Entrepreneur First’s pre-seed investment in March 2021.

Six months later, the team went on to raise another US$ 1 million in seed funding, led by piVentures, an early-stage fund that invests in disruptive tech-based ideas in India.

“Looking back, I am thankful for this wonderful founder journey. I would never have imagined myself launching my own company, as a CEO, and successfully raising funding,” quips Aridni “Entrepreneur First really gave us an effective crash course on all things business – from pitching, financial modeling to the other jargon.” 

Trisha was also pleasantly surprised to find herself starting a biotech company. 

“This wouldn’t have happened without the founding of immunitoAI.”

Beyond developing the solutions to increase the efficiency of novel antibody screening efforts, they plan to come up with their proprietary antibodies for the antibody therapy market in the medium to long term. 

Aridni and Trisha have achieved plenty in a short span of time, and they are poised to continue on that accelerated trajectory.

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