citybiz+ Moderna Founder’s Apriori Bio Gets $1.1M from Gates Foundation-funded CEPI

Apriori Bio, co-founded by the life sciences venture firm behind Moderna, has received a $1.1 million grant from the Gates Foundation-led Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

The Cambridge, Mass., startup aims to protect humanity from amplified threats from rapidly evolving viruses, such as Covid-19. Apriori Bio has built an artificial intelligence platform, called Octavia, that can survey the landscape of existing viruses and their potential variants, and design new vaccines for the most threatening ones.

Grant to Bring Focus on H3N2

Flagship Pioneering, whose founder Noubar Afeyan established Covid-19 vaccine maker Moderna, co-founded Apriori in 2020 with an initial commitment of $50 million. Apriori’s co-founders include CEO Lovisa Afzelius and Chief Innovation Officer Daniel Acker, both of whom are Flagship executives. The company plans to use the grant to focus on pandemic influenza strain H3N2, which has previously affected pigs, birds and humans.

“The world was brought to its knees by the devastating Covid-19 pandemic…To avoid being in this vulnerable position again, we need to shift our global mindset to one of preparedness,” said In-Kyu Yoon of the Oslo-headquartered CEPI, which was jointly established by the Gates Foundation and the governments of Norway and India.

AI Is Key

According to MIT Tech Review, Apriori Bio builds and tests millions of variants of viruses in the lab before using machine learning to predict how the best antibodies would fare against variants potentially numbering hundreds of billions. In a final step, it then takes the most promising antibodies to design variant-proof vaccines.

“It’s just not viable to ever do this experimentally,” Afzelius, who has a Ph.D. in computational chemistry from Uppsala University and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, told Tech Review. “There is no way that your human brain can put all those bits and pieces in place and figure out that entire system.”

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Afzelius, an “origination partner” at Flagship Pioneering, started her career at Astra Zeneca. Later, she led Pfizer’s systems immunology function and co-founded, a digital health company focused on rheumatoid arthritis.

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“Apriori Bio’s technology platform can be used to develop vaccines and antibody drugs for viral variants that have yet to emerge, taking a leap toward shielding humanity from existing and future viral threats,” said Afeyan, an Armenian native with a Ph.D. from MIT’s Center for Bioprocess Engineering.

Afeyan, an American-Canadian entrepreneur and inventor, currently teaches at Harvard Business School.