Here today to unpack how immersive interfaces support drug research and development is Keita Funakawa, founder and COO of Nanome. Join us to hear about the first application that Nanome set out to mainstream; drug discovery, and how they are bringing their vision to bring science into a collaborative, intuitive, and obvious space. You’ll also learn about Harvard’s study into how VR can support chemistry education, and what it has been like for Keita to work with big pharmaceutical companies with a product he built right out of school. We touch on quantum computing, and discuss the COVID19 supercomputing project Nanome has been involved with, before talking about the AI generated potential therapeutics analyzed by humans in virtual reality. Nanome reaches far and wide, from being used to analyze battery cells, to integrations in the food and beverage industry. Keita shares a bit about these relationships, and reveals the details of his funding journey during the pandemic. We hope you join us to hear all this and more today!
Key Points From This Episode:
“We’re very mission-driven about what science ought to look like, and we know that science ought to look collaborative, it ought to look intuitive, it ought to look obvious. These are some of the problems, a lot of science isn’t like that right now.” — @KeitaWF [0:04:37]
“It is very much within our vision and passion to lower the barrier to entry to these types of complex data and science, as a whole. Education has also been a pretty big part of this.” — @KeitaWF [0:05:46]
“What does the next generation scientific interface look like when everybody has a VR or AR headset just like they do a smartphone? That’s the vision that we’re building for.” — @KeitaWF [0:25:00]
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
[00:00:04] Pearly Chen: Welcome to Good Vibes with VIVE. I’m your host, Pearly Chen. I’m an executive with global technology company, HTC. As a mother of three young girls, I’ve loved building and investing in profound immersive technologies then make a positive difference in people’s lives. Each week, I speak with founders at the forefront of VR, AR in the metaverse. All of them inspire me and some, I’ve been lucky enough to back as an investor. Tune in every week to hear some of the most inspiring closed-door conversations, and walk away informed, inspired, and full of good vibes.
[00:00:43] PC: Hi, Keita. Welcome to Good Vibes of VIVE. I thought about starting a show called Good Vibes, because really, all of us can use some good vibes today and every day, especially given the context. And we've all been living in isolation for the past one year now. I always say that one of the best parts of my job with HTC is getting to work with entrepreneurs like yourselves and really having the opportunity to back early stage companies from idea stage and watch them grow and go on to do amazing things. That's really why I'm really excited to be able to speak to you and really chat about a lot of the recent progress and successes that you have been making.
Keita is a co-founder and Nanome. Nanome is virtual reality software company based in San Diego. We're very lucky to have an opportunity to back them back in the early days. A lot of the founders this time around had been more seasoned mature founders, but Nanome team was really a very special one. First time founders out of school. But I always felt something really, really special about this team that gave me tremendous confidence even as first-time founders, just based on their hustle and their dedication and their devotion to bring their solution to a drug discovery. That was really the first application that Nanome set out to mainstream.
Basically, scientific discovery in the pharmaceutical industry, and drug discovery is oftentimes a multiyear and maybe tens of billions of dollars type of endeavor. Part of that is due to very inefficient scientific collaboration tools. Because of molecular design and protein discovery, interaction design, a lot of that is innately three dimensional. But the tools that scientists and structural biologists and computational chemists are using are still very much to be, it's all based on very complex tools, they need to be capturing screenshots, inserting into PowerPoint slides trying to communicate with each other, making the collaboration process really lengthy and difficult.
So, what Nanome has to endeavored to do is to bring all of that into a three-dimensional immersive environment so that any discipline, the scientists of any discipline can get on the same page faster and easier. So, the scientific discovery can be made much better. This has been an extremely compelling idea for me and the team has really thought to this vision all these years. A lot of companies, as you know, have come and gone in the many years that we have been investing. But Nanome has really stuck it through and in the past year, Nanome also became the first US company to receive grants from the European Commission as part of the supercomputing project against the SARS-CoV-2 virus which is Coronavirus, the cause of COVID-19. And of course, recently, Nanome just raised a C plus round of three million dollars to continue building out their vision.
So, there's so much to unpack here. I want to introduce Keita and have Keita talk to us a little bit more about how this journey has been like for his small, powerful and committed team and how this past year has been like in playing a role in combating COVID-19 and new race and so many more.
[00:03:54] Keita Funakawa: Yeah. Well, thanks so much for that great intro. I'm impressed actually, by the fact that you got the scientists names down and the different biologists and chemists and all that stuff. Also, good to catch up with you. Happy to be here. Thanks so much for having me. Also, good to catch up.
A little bit about myself and the company. My name is Keita Funakawa. I'm the COO and co-founder of Nanome. So, we spun out of UC San Diego in about 2015, 2016. Ever since then, we've been really on that journey. We're very mission driven, passionate about what science ought to look like. And we know that science ought to look collaborative, they ought to look intuitive, they ought to look obvious. These are some of the big problems. A lot of science isn't like that right now. As we go into work from a remote collaboration, it became really obvious that the scientific community and the community as a whole needed a solution like this. And so, we’re getting quite a bit of traction like without COVID-19. But really, COVID-19 was a huge accelerant for us because of the fact that not just being used to actually research COVID-19. In fact, one of our milestones from last year, there was a Nature paper publish that included a Nanome workspace. So, that was really cool. So, they had like a dot Nanome file in nature publication. So historic achievement on our end there.
But it's not just being for SARS-CoV-2, but it's also there's still scientists out there that are working on very important things like cancer and diabetes and all that stuff. And they still need to be doing research. But from home now, right? Our solution enables those types of researchers to also collaborate from home in better ways than just Zoom screen share and things like that. Lastly, it is very much within our kind of vision and passion just to lower the barrier to entry to these types of complex data, and science as a whole. Education has also been a pretty big part of this.
At the very simplest, you can think about it as a way to replace the ball and stick models that you might have used in introductory chemistry. We have over 250 universities that downloaded Nanome and a subset of those are bought like classroom bundles and things like that, to help with their learning from home efforts. A recent milestone on that end is that we just published a paper with Harvard. The paper was published by Harvard. It was talking about the efficacy of virtual reality for chemistry, education. And also, it was talking about the efficacy of Nanome within chemistry education as well. Anyways, a lot to talk about. Those are some couple key highlights I just mentioned, I didn't even talk about fundraising yet.
[00:06:17] PC: Right. So, there's the education aspect for students in universities who learn about general chemistry, that's really wonderful. Those tools are free for anyone to download and take advantage of in educational setting or at home. But there's also the professional setup where some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world are using Nanome to help their scientists collaborate better facilitate their drug discovery and R&D process. So, how has it been like working with some of the biggest pharma companies in the world in integrating a product that you guys have built out of school in a very critical process of their work? Tell us a little bit about what that has been like? It must have been intimidating at first.
[00:07:02] KF: Well, first of all, I mean, I think, going back to the school days, I guess, you know, back at UCSD, we alongside kind of founding the company, and my co-founder, Steve and I, we were one of the few people that were doing kind of modern virtual reality, if you will, on campus. So, we really needed to create a community of not just likeminded people, but other people who were enthusiastic about VR. Major shout out to HTC. Because we were one of the lucky campuses that got the VIVE present back in 2015, I think it was. So, ever since then, I mean, we were able to grow, like it was like a handful of us, four or five of us at the very beginning at the VR club, and now it's like the mailing list is a couple hundred. But at the end of that yeas, I'm sure it's up to like a couple thousand now.
But I want to talk about that, the community of virtual reality enthusiast I think helped tremendously. That core foundation of limitless thinking and limitless possibilities of virtual reality is definitely something that we have a close sense of like feeling, too. So, I think when we started to really go down kind of this scientific route and see how we can help out within the scientific community. Well, first off, San Diego is also a great hub for biotech, and pharma. Our first collaborator was actually somebody that we wrote a paper with was Novartis, and they were literally across the street from our campus.
[00:08:20] PC: That’s great.
[00:08:21] KF: Yeah, so I mean, that really helped a lot, because it felt very natural to just cross the street, show them some demos. I remember literally showing Novartis scientists like Tilt Brush back in the day, and their blood vial, and like, “Yeah, if only we could do like molecule data, like instead of paintings or whatever.” And we're like, “That's exactly what we're trying to do.” We have a really good relationship with them and we published a paper with them back in 2017. And so, I think that kind of close, tight feedback loop and collaborative aspect, I think really kind of helped us develop the product as it is today.
[00:08:54] PC: And then one thing leads to another. One customer leads to another. One site leads to multiple, and it really just starts snowballing from here, increasing your confidence as well, and the value of the product you have built, and in the customer success stories as well. Can you talk to us a little bit about what the customers have been willing to share?
[00:09:10] KF: Definitely. One thing that I have to warn you is that like, pharma companies are extremely competitive and secretive. The fact that one company is using one type of tool like, they don't even want other competing companies to know because that might be an edge or whatever. It's been a struggle for us, as a kind of a startup because we want to talk about how amazing we are and how we're actually helping people in that kind of stuff. That's it, though. We have been lucky enough to publish a few papers, like I said, with Novartis. The latest one, we published a case study with Nimbus therapeutics, and they were talking about essentially how they saw things in Nanome that they would have missed using other software. As a result, they were able to do things or make mistakes virtually instead of physically, right? And these chemicals that you met, or these times of manufacture and test on cell cultures are you up to physical human beings, like they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars at a minimum.
Basically, this case study was talking about how at the very least, like Nanome saves tens and thousands of dollars just on manufacturing the chemicals that they would have manufactured, if it weren’t for Nanome. That was kind of the the latest case study there. I think that that, that's the lower bound and the upper bound could be infinite, right? Because you can go forward with these chemicals all the way up until like phase three clinical trials and those costs, millions of dollars at that point, right. And then you find out it's not effective or dangerous at that point, then you've abandoned that entire pipeline.
So, the fact that we're catching those things early, and that we're letting these scientists gain these insights early virtually, is something that we’re extremely proud of. So, I think that's kind of – the Novartis case study is one. The Nimbus case study is one. I think anecdotally, like, people, they're like our scientists, we've heard that they just can't live without it anymore, because they just can't go back to a 2D solution anymore, given that they've seen their molecules, like on their hands. A lot of stories like that.
[00:11:05] PC: Yeah, it's very valuable to be able to make mistakes virtually versus physically in real life. That also applies to a lot of VR applications to bringing otherwise hazardous processes. And it's always better when the mistake can be just virtual and stay virtual, and then releasing a lot of cost and efficiency too.
[00:11:24] KF: Can I be a little unorthodox/out there a little moment?
[00:11:28] PC: Yes. I love that.
[00:11:29] KF: So, the craziest thing. Okay. I don't know if you know, like, you kind of talked about like sci fi concepts about like parallel universes and things like that. And then also, quantum computers is kind of a big thing, especially, they say one of the best applications of quantum computing is quantum chemistry, right? And so the reason why is because, the way that atoms interact with one another is very – it’s very hard to use classical computing with like, classical semiconductors to try to simulate what would happen.
Newtonian physics, you see things like Unreal Engine, where in like training, virtual reality, like, “Oh, yeah, if you put the hammer like this, then it might fall on this other thing and then this might happen or whatever.” But at the atomic and molecular level, those things are determined by quantum physics. So, as a result, then the quantum computers are really good at and there's a lot of quantum mechanics and quantum computing things that are being researched right now. We are starting to be able to integrate with quantum computers and those results. But the reason why I wanted to mention this is because like, right now, I think that we're like, we talk about this idea of like, “Oh, yeah, let's see like the Doctor Strange and Avengers where there's all the possible different outcomes of a universe.”
But the closest thing to that sci fi is actually kind of like what we're doing with quantum computers, because you're literally simulating parallel universes using quantum physics and quantum computing, and then seeing how the atoms could potentially affect one another to see the outcome. So, we're just looking at a very, very small scale, if you will, at like the atomic and molecular level. But essentially, what we're trying to do is, scale that up and be like, “Okay, does this drug work in this population set or whatever?” And then see that kind of parallel world, if you will, and be like, “Oh, yeah, this works.” Let's make this drug. Right.
So yeah, I wanted to kind of quickly mention that just because I feel like, it excites me, because this is like super sci fi crazy stuff that we're working towards.
[00:13:29] PC: That's fascinating. I was definitely transporting myself into Dr. Strange world and see all the particles come apart and come together. And you're essentially referring to that philosophical level where we're molecular design, as you're doing now very much simulates what that means. You're trying to understand things in a very micro level, but it is a parallel universe that we're trying to peek into and understand better, humbling at humanity. There are a lot of things we don't understand. But because of tools like this, we are hopefully taking one step closer to a lot of the wonders in our world and feel even more humble about how our role in the universe. Maybe talk to us a little more about the COVID-19, this supercomputing project that that you work on with the European Commission, and how you've seen scientists use Nanome to get up and personal with the virus.
[00:14:24] KF: Definitely. Yeah, so a quick background to the organization is called Escalate for COV, which is a kind of play on word for escalating things using computers. So, it's a European government initiative that combines private sector by pharmaceutical companies, government research labs, as well as academic research labs all over Europe. We're actually the first American company to join that. There was a Canadian company that also joined as well, but we're kind of facilitating the research that they're doing with supercomputers on COVID-19. So, what I mentioned earlier, similarly to what I mentioned earlier, I don't think they're using quantum computers per se, but they are essentially using a bunch of different computers to simulate what would happen with certain mutations or certain drugs within kind of the context of COVID-19. And they're using Nanome as a way to both collaborate across the different organizations as well as to analyze the data that they get from these different simulation results.
[00:15:19] PC: That's awesome. There's a partnership with the AI power drug discovery company that you collaborated with, in the vaccine development process? Tell us a little more about that.
[00:15:30] KF: One company that we did a preprint with was called silico medicine, and it's a preprint. So, it's not peer reviewed yet. But it was kind of a pretty crazy sci fi sounding paper, because it was about essentially AI generated potential therapeutics for COVID-19 analyzed by humans in virtual reality. That paper we published again, preprint, around like mid last year and so we also made a video with them that's also available on our YouTube, and it showcases kind of their scientists and taking us through some of the results that you know, an AI algorithm generated for potential therapeutics or COVID-19. Then we reviewed that together in virtual reality to kind of see like, “Oh, hey, it's interesting that the algorithm came up with a structure that looked like this or that went this direction”, and things like that or had this property because we can also integrate with a lot of like Cheminformatics software. So yeah, that was kind of the gist there.
[00:16:25] PC: I'm sure, I saw Steve, I'm sure all of yourself as well have spent a lot of personal time inside Nanome looking at the Coronavirus. I actually recently learned the reason that Coronavirus is called Coronavirus, because it has this crown shape, spike shape how you call that?
[00:16:41] KF: The spike protein.
[00:16:43] PC: The spike protein. Corona means crown, in Latin and Italian. So, has this experience kind of given you any kind of different feelings about human’s mortality, about scientific discovery? Or is there anything, anything that has kind of sparked a different thinking looking at a virus this way?
[00:17:02] KF: Oh, well, I mean, like, first of all, like I think my immediate reaction to that is like it feels super weird being up close to the spike protein which is responsible for why this pandemic is as infectious and spreads as easily as it does. The first time I saw, actually I remember like, before the lockdowns, it was in February of 2020. One our scientists that we have already worked with in the past who uses Nanome regularly. He's an Australian government research lab scientist named Dr. Piper and we actually did a live stream with them. But he was like, “I'm doing research on the Coronavirus. Here are the first models of the spike protein that we got to see.” Before it was even on the database. So, there’s a database called protein databank and that's kind of a public database where there's a bunch of different proteins that are already known to mankind.
And before that the Coronavirus protein was even on there, we got to collaborate with the scientists and check it out in Nanome. And so, it was kind of a surreal moment, because, you know, we were seeing the headlines about how it's spreading in China, and I think, Italy and things like that, like California wasn't in lockdown quite yet. I remember, like looking at my phone, looking at the headlines, and then seems like, “Oh, hey, like, I got the spike protein.” I was like, “Oh, let's check it out.” I'm like, “Wow, okay.”
So, being able to check that out, is very surreal. I think the exciting thing on that end, and even more surreal is looking at the mutations. So, we're doing a lot of collaboration with researchers that are analyzing the mutations and how it might affect the deadliness, how infectious it is, and things like that. So for us, we get to be on kind of the frontlines, if you will, of the specific research, kind of like looking at mutations as an example. When we see the headlines on the news that's like, I think UK mutation or the California mutation or whatever, I have the spatial memory of exactly knowing like, “Oh, yeah, that mutates this part of the spike protein and things like that.” So, that's also quite surreal.
In terms of your question about how my outlook, existentially or humanity wise, I don’t know, it’s just so sci fi. Steve and I, my co-founder, like, we've been talking about this – I remember when we had a literal explicit conversation, “Oh, yeah. Someday there's going to be a pandemic, and we're going to use Nanome to try to solve these big problems.” I think I remember talking to you about – remember the Zika virus, there might be a future of version of this and Nanome is going to be used.
Because we've talked about these ideas for so long, and from the kind of the scientific community perspective, it's kind of only been a matter of time before something like this has happened. Yeah, as unfortunate as it is, right? So, from that perspective, it's so surreal and we're very fortunate to be a solution of this crisis. It’s obviously unfortunate, we're very proud of the fact that we're kind of contributing to the research aspect of this crisis.
[00:20:09] PC: That’s really exciting. What’s next after drug and scientific discovery? Do you think a tool like this can play a role in solving climate change and other existential crisis facing humanity?
[00:20:21] KF: Yeah, definitely. I don't know how much I could talk about this. But I guess, I'll just like try to remember the names and talk generally. But there's a university scientist, who works very closely with a battery technology company who was purchased by a pretty big automotive company. They’re already using Nanome to analyze and look at essentially, battery cells, which are very also kind of coming down to the molecular level. If you ever heard like lithium ion batteries, right? They’re made of lithium.
It really kind of comes down to the molecular composition of these types of new innovations that we're making. You look at Apple's new Apple silicone, like their processors, like they're using five nanometer FinFETs, or features for their processors. If you think about it, that's like, essentially, like about a dozen Tylenol molecules stacked together. That’s the feature sizes that these silicon processes are working with right now. So, we know that like, a lot of different types of industries are going down to like this molecular scale. We're really starting to see some very, very early traction, not quite Product Market Fit ready yet, per se, but we are starting to see some very early traction and more of the material sciences types of things. That extends to semiconductors, batteries, or even solar cells that are also going down to a down in scale, as well. So, a lot of exciting things on that end.
Besides kind of climate change, what I'm personally really excited about that we're seeing a little bit more mature traction is food and beverage. So, we actually had a top three to five food and beverage company buy our software, within like three weeks. It was like super-fast sales cycle that happened at the end of last year. And they were looking for a solution like Nanome. What's interesting is that like a lot of food and beverage companies are recruiting directly from pharmaceutical companies, because it turns out that designing a flavor for your tongue is kind of like designing a drug. You're designing a compound that's going to dock or connect with one of your proteins that that's on your tongue. So, that's super fascinating and exciting. I think we're just starting to scratch the surface of what's possible in those industries. Obviously, from a startup perspective, faster sales cycles are always exciting.
I covered quite a bit of kind of the potential future verticals that we can go into. But within pharmaceuticals, there's still like a lot of micro verticals. So right now, we're in drug discovery. We're starting to get some traction within drug development, or what's called like formulation, or process chemistry, and that's kind of different. Okay, now we know what potential like compound to make for this disease or whatever. Now, instead of making five milligrams, let's make five kilograms of it, so that we can scale up the production. That type of chemistry is also, we're starting to get traction as well.
So, it's a very different use case, like the scientists are different, the way that they interact with this type of data is different. But then they're dealing with molecular data, and then you analyze it, visualize it, understand it. Later down the line, you go into clinical development, and research, as well as even pharmaceutical sales. I think there's going to be a lot of potential on that side of things as well. I just did 23 and me analysis of my genome and one of our grand vision, especially as we go into more, the quantified self, more data about yourself, whether that's genomic or simply your glucose levels, or whatever, everybody's different, right? So, looking at how specifically your built, and then how we can best choose or make therapeutic for you is something that we're also very interested in and I think we have a lot of potential going down the line.
I think, not to go on to too much, but we all have this vision of AR and VR becoming the next computing interface, where like, we still strongly believe that to be the case. So, what does the next generation scientific interface look like, when everybody has a VR, AR headset, just like they do, like a smartphone, right? That's really kind of the vision that we're building for, and that includes, we're just starting with drug discovery, but there's a whole lot of potential in other areas.
[00:24:22] PC: That's really super exciting. Really, sky is the limit. From here, you're just scratching the surface as you said, although it's been quite a journey to five years and counting now. You're just really getting started and the momentum is on your side and the customers are happy and they're making very good use of your tools. That's really the best reward of the entrepreneurial journey to build something that is put to good use to serve humankind. So, I feel really excited for you in the team.
[00:24:53] KF: Thank you. I mean, we couldn't have done it without all your help. So, shout out to the HTC VIVE community and the VIVE – it’s just been an awesome journey.
[00:25:05] PC: The honor and pleasure is all ours. Tell us about how easy or hard it has been to fundraise during a pandemic?
[00:25:13] KF: Well, it's a weird kind of situation that we're in, right? Because I remember because we were trying to fundraise at, like start – so we had a really, really strong 2019. We saw a lot of expansions, we saw a lot of new adoption in 2019, and in one of the industry comparables, and we consider them kind of complementary to what we do, Schrodinger went public at the beginning of 2020. So, we thought that there's a definitive market appetite for the type of things that we do, computational chemistry, molecular visualization, that kind of thing. It started to go out talk to a lot of potential investors. We had a lot of good prospects, I think in like March, and then like the lockdowns happened. And then like, all the VCs were like, “Sorry, we got to stop talking to new leads. We got to focus on our existing portfolio, make sure that they're alright.” That kind of thing. April to May was, “Okay, what are we going to do next?”
We didn't want to just sit by the sidelines, during this global pandemic wanted to be actively helping out an amplifying our efforts. And that was really the intention of fundraising from the get go. So, once VCs started to warm back up, like May, June, then we were kind of back on track.
[00:26:26] PC: Thank you so much for taking all this time to have this chat with me. It's been really, really wonderful to catch up. And again, see all this passion firsthand. I'm excited with the opportunity to share this with everybody out there, to really share some good vibes of like good people using VR to do really good work. That's already making a profound positive impact. Yeah, so if you were – again, this was your first job really out of school. In hindsight, if you hadn't started this entrepreneurial journey, what do you think you'll be doing? And then all your partners what, what would have been the alternative?
[00:27:03] KF: I mean, it's weird, right? Because I have a lot of different interests growing up, whether that was like science and technology to media. So, I've been coding since I was in ninth grade and I've also been working at a TV station since I was in like 10th grade. I also got super into like, crypto in like 2013, 2014, and that made me switch from a computer science major to quantitative economics major when I was in my second year in college. So, I had a bunch of different interest kind of growing up. I was very set on becoming a filmmaker. I was actually about to apply to film school before I met Steve. And before I tried the Google Cardboard, and once I tried the Google Cardboard, I was like, “Oh my god”, the metaphor that I use is like, it's like seeing photography for the first time if you're like a painter, right?
This is mind blowing. Paintings are still going to be there, but like, whatever this is going to be, I need to be part of this. So, that's how I felt from like, an artistic perspective, but also from a tech science and tech perspective, but nothing really, like made me like I need to build this. So, when I tried to Google Cardboard, and I knew that I had just enough skills to like, start messing around with prototypes and unity and things like that, then I was like, “Okay, I need to actually build something.” I had this kind of fire inside of me. And at the time, there was just only, roller coaster games, and zombie shooters and things like that, in 2014, 2015. I was like, “There has to be a better use case for virtual reality or better ways to leverage this amazing medium.”
That's when I met Steve, it was like, “Yeah, molecules in VR, just makes sense.” I'm like, “Oh, my God, it doesn't make sense.” Anyway, I mean, I kind of got derailed though. But I honestly can't see myself doing anything else, because it does truly, from an identity perspective, it kind of puts everything that I'm passionate about into one thing.
[00:29:04] PC: Really, the perfect place to be Keita. I'm so excited for you for everything that will continue to come your way and for the team to continue disrupting very many different ways that scientific discovery is done to continue to bring these incredible changes and positive impact to our world. Thank you so much, Keita, Nanome, for being with us today. We hope to get together again soon.
[00:29:28] KF: Awesome.
[00:29:30] PC: Bye.
[00:29:33] PC: Thank you for listening. Please subscribe and share this podcast with a colleague or friend that you think could use some good vibes. Learn more at vive.com and follow HTC Vive on social media. See you next week.