Women in Innovation (Verge Genomics) – Alice Zhang

Developing new drugs is a challenging enterprise. It costs pharmaceutical companies an average of $2.7 billion to bring medicine to store shelves, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, and as much as 90 percent of treatments in late-stage trials never come to market because they’re deemed ineffective or unsafe.

In today’s article, we look at how Alice Zhang co-founded Verge Genomics and the challenges she faced.

Who is she?

Alice Zhang is the CEO & Co-Founder of Verge Genomics, a company that uses machine learning to develop drugs for complex diseases. Alice has been at the forefront of systems biology research for over seven years, at the National Cancer Institute, the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, and UCLA.

During this time, she has co-authored four peer-reviewed papers in high profile journals such as Cell and Neuron. She graduated from Princeton University magna cum laude with high honors in Molecular Biology and is a 2012 recipient of the prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. In 2010, she began training in the UCLA-Caltech MD/Ph.D. program, with a focus in neuroscience, where she spent five years investigating gene networks involved in neuro-regeneration. In 2017, she was named one of Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30.

How Verge Genomics started

While pursuing an MD/PhD at UCLA, Zhang was shocked to learn a fact every drug researcher knows all too well: 90% of medicines that start human studies fail. “It’s still largely a guessing game,” she says.

In 2015, Zhang co-founded Verge Genomics with the idea of shattering the decades-long limitations of the drug discovery system, putting in practice her ideas for an interdisciplinary team that would combine top PhDs in machine learning with veteran drug developers to more rapidly understand the gene interactions behind complex diseases. Her startup is the latest in a long line of biotechs that think merging the latest in computer science with new technologies for decoding the human genetic code can provide a solution.

Verge Genomics

Verge Genomics, is a next-generation therapeutics company that is using human genomic data to accelerate drug discovery. Verge brings together mathematicians, neuroscientists, computer learning experts and biotech professionals to accelerate understanding of disease and push for novel solutions. Verge is currently focusing on neurodegenerative disorders, and recently announced several public-private partnerships to create massive databases of information on ALS and Parkinson’s disease.

What’s so special about Verge is that it has the guts to target Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s areas, most drug companies have abandoned as hopeless. The seven-person startup raised $4 million from firms including IA Ventures and Draper Associates, and assembled advisors including Alzheimer’s luminary Paul Aisen, Harvard biotech guru George Church, and the chief medical officer of the biotech firm Alkermes. Using machine-learning algorithms to understand networks of genes is and exploding scientific field. (Source: Forbes)

Challenges she faced

In an interview, Zhang shares about the challenges she faced during their journey. “One major hurdle is breaking down the silos that still exist between the computer scientists, biologists, drug hunters, and academics. Traditionally, computer scientists and biologists have existed in silos, which has precluded AI from making meaningful traction in the drug discovery space. A lot of AI companies just have a machine learning platform while a lot of drug discovery companies just have biologists. But there are very few that have been successful at combining the two.”

“The most important thing about starting and running a successful company is persevering. There were many times where it would have been easy to give up, but I just needed to keep my head down and get through it. It’s all about grit.” said Zhang. (Source: medium)

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