First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Noam Solomon: We’ve been managing and are all healthy right now. Thank you for asking.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Immunai.
Noam Solomon: When we started the company, I was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and MIT. Prior to that, I completed two PhDs in Math and Computer Science and have been working in the Israeli startup industry, holding various positions in machine learning and data science.
The idea to start Immunai came through many long discussions with my co-founder and CTO, Luis Voloch, who was working in computational biology at the time. We were both fascinated by how transformative machine learning and artificial intelligence is, and we wanted to bring cutting-edge artificial intelligence methods — for example, transfer and multi-task learning from computer vision and natural language processing — into genomics. Our scientific founders, Ansu Satpathy, Danny Wells, and Dan Littman, helped us shape our scientific vision and structure our mission to decode and measure the immune system as a foundational component of understanding and treating disease.
How does Immunai innovate?
Noam Solomon: The immune system is an incredibly complex distributed system, spanning lymph nodes, the thymus, lymphatic vessels, spleen, bone marrow, appendix, tonsils, and other organs. Companies have been trying to understand the immune system for years, but with limited success. Immunai measures the immune system in unprecedented depth and rigor. We leverage single-cell technologies to profile cells and machine learning to map and profile data to hundreds of cell types and states. Because our approach is “multi-omic,” that is, we are analyzing gene expression levels, protein markers, TCR and BCR fragments, and other single-cell omics. We analyze 10,000 times more data for each immune cell than others before us. We use this information to support biomarker discovery and generate unprecedented insights to power new therapeutic discoveries, accelerate drug development, and improve patient outcomes.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Noam Solomon: Despite the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve made necessary accommodations to ensure our employees are safe, connected, and motivated to continue driving cancer research and therapeutic development forward. As an essential service, Immunai was able to keep its labs open while maintaining safety standards and social distancing requirements. Other employees that don’t work in the lab were given the flexibility to permanently work remotely.
In addition to internal changes at the company, when the pandemic hit, we’ve actually started leveraging our technology to conduct studies on COVID-19 and the immune system, which has helped inform various vaccine and therapeutic developments.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Noam Solomon: When the pandemic started, many companies decided to cut down on costs, and in particular to lay off people or cut salaries. Naturally, as the CEO of a company, my first priority is for the company’s sustainability in difficult times, and when the circumstances dictate, difficult decisions need to be taken. We decided to pause a few research projects for a few months that we were about to launch with some of the top academic institutions. This helped reduce costs and increase our runway, and because the pandemic complicates the recruitment of cancer patients into studies, it made sense to wait and see. We believed that the life sciences market, especially companies working with pharmaceutical companies, are less likely to be affected. So it didn’t make sense to lay off people or cut on salaries. In fact, we were able to save money because many people were working from home. In retrospect, maintaining the team was one of our most important decisions. Our team members know that their well-being and financial security are always a top priority for us, even in uncertain times. We believe that Immunai has built an exceptionally talented team and proud that we were able to maintain it in a time of crisis.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Immunai in the future?
Noam Solomon: Personally, I feel comfortable in an uncertain environment. Being an entrepreneur, you need to embrace the fact that you’re paving a path in uncharted territories and that the environment keeps changing. I also believe that certain stress and anxiety levels are good for you, and make sure you’re alert and sharp. But one has to remember that we can’t always control everything, and there are times where the best you can do is regroup and do your best even if you don’t know exactly what tomorrow brings. With that said, even in hectic times, where the visibility of the trajectory and the compass needs some recalibration, it is vital that your team feel confident in your leadership. True leadership is not measured by pretending to know where you’re going (when the circumstances say otherwise) but is the ability to inspire your team and let them know that the steering wheel is in capable hands. Your team needs to know that although there is uncertainty, leadership is able to identify risks, mitigate them, and adjust the optimal path to success with minimal changes.
Our mission is to use single-cell sequencing and machine learning to provide a comprehensive understanding of the immune system. We’d like for our platform to become a scalable benchmark for all pharma companies and help hospitals, researchers, and clinicians find better ways to detect, diagnose, and treat various diseases using our platform. We hope to move forward while keeping our employees safe from COVID-19 so that we can all get one step closer to a healthier world. We are working relentlessly to make sure that the team knows we look after them even in the most uncertain times.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Noam Solomon: No one is doing exactly what we’re doing. Our technology is vertically integrated, meaning we have an end-to-end solution that takes the data from our lab and then analyzes it on the computational side in one go. We also look at RNA at the single-cell level, which we’ve found is the best way to measure health, while other companies use PCR or bulk sequencing technologies. Combining both single-cell technologies and machine learning enables us to scale immune cell data with granularity and resolution, which is essential for understanding the disease’s dynamism. As our database grows, we can apply learnings around immune response across different diseases from cancer to autoimmune disorders to cardiovascular diseases as well.
Your final thoughts?
Noam Solomon: We’re excited about the traction we’ve seen since we launched just in May of this year. In addition to raising $20 million in seed funding, our solution has already been validated through successful partnerships with a seven-figure deal with a Fortune 100 pharma company and academic institutions, including Harvard, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Massachusetts General Hospital, and UPenn.