Technology, 05/16/2023 08:00

How this Spanish entrepreneur finds new applications for drugs through artificial intelligence

By Alessandra Mattanza


There are visionaries who fight for their goal until they reach it. Raúl Insa, founder and CEO of SOM Biotech, a Barcelona-based company, is one of them. He worked for over thirty years in the pharmaceutical sector, but his dream was to open a company that would help create a better world. Thanks to AI technology, he made it happen. Now he wants to expand his business with funding from Silicon Valley, as well as support from European banks. “We are one of the few companies in the sector that in a period of crisis like this, where it is not always easy to find funding, has managed to generate revenues,” Raúl explains.

How did you decide to work in this field?

As a young boy, I had a motorcycle accident that caused me to lose part of my thumb on one hand. During that time I spent quite a lot of time in the hospital and decided to become a doctor when I was only 14 years old. I attended the University of Alicante, Spain, graduating with a doctorate in clinical neurology. I became a doctor, but I wanted to work as a researcher. My goal has always been research to help patients at a level that, for me, was even higher and aimed at solving their underlying problems. So I decided to get an MBA from ESADE Business School in Barcelona, because I also wanted to learn how to be an entrepreneur. For the same reason, I took an Executive Education Program at IESE in Barcelona. And, to further my specialization in my field as well as my role in the business world, I went to Boston in the United States. There I took biotech leadership programs at Harvard Business School. To be a good leader, I knew it was not enough to be talented and proficient. I had to develop my expertise in drug development, from drug identification to commercialization, from clinical research to licensing.

You are an established researcher and professional and could have found many opportunities in the corporate sector. Why did you decide to start your own company?

I founded SOM Biotech in 2009. I certainly know the corporate world very well. I have developed a lot of experience in pharmaceutical companies such as Parke-Davis, then Pfizer, UBC Pharma, Uriach Group, then Palau Pharma, ISDIN, and then Esteve Group. I have been involved in the development of drugs such as Tacrine, Cetirizine, Quinapril, Levetircetam, Rupatadine, Dersalazine, Cimicoxib, Albaconazole, Gemfibrozil… I am well established in the industry, and certainly, starting my own company was risky. But I wanted to be innovative and be able to make the decisions. I was able to create SOM Biotech thanks to a new AI technology that we developed with our years of experience.

How does SOM Biotech differ from other companies in the sector?

In the beginning SOM Biotech was born as a new start-up, established at the Parc Cientific de Barcelona. I have focused our activity on drug repositioning or, to be more precise, on finding a new uses for already approved drugs. In the beginning we were considered more of a pharmaceutical company than a biotech company, but now we have become increasingly specialized in the identification of new therapeutic applications of known drugs, following the most advanced technologies. We aim to reprofile existing drugs, thanks to the discovery of new technological software and an excellent AI computational platform and by developing an environment open to innovation. The technology we are using was not possible before, but now AI has made everything more accessible.

You have also decided to focus in the area of rare diseases and “orphan diseases”…

Yes, because of these diseases, which number more than 7,000 and are always increasing in number with new medical research, only 5% have any treatment. We also try to be competitive both in terms of price and safety, and this method of operating has quickly proven successful. Most people with “orphan diseases” have life threatening conditions. So there is an urgent need to find new treatments. The global orphan disease market has grown strongly at 11% in recent years and is projected to reach $217 billion in 2024.

Why did you decide to come to Silicon Valley to look for investors?

We are in full expansion, and we know that the U.S. market is excellent and much larger than the one in Europe, where investors are more cautious and reluctant to invest. Furthermore, Silicon Valley and Boston are the best hubs at the moment for the biotech sector, which is generally booming. In Silicon Valley we have relied on US Capital Global, which is based in San Francisco but also has a presence in many other countries around the world. We also have SFT Capital in the United States and CaixaBank in Europe. In addition, we have an excellent consultant in Silicon Valley: Joaquim Trias, CEO of Attivare. After a doctorate in biology from Barcelona, he specialized at UC Berkeley. He is a great entrepreneur who has founded several biotech companies. He is an incredible professional in the discovery and development of new treatments in the biopharmaceutical industry.

Where did the investments come from in the beginning?

When I started my company, I invested my own money, as well as that of friends and family. So far, we have invested over €20 million. I was convinced that AI technology worked and would be increasingly applied in the medical sector. We have had great success right from the start, which has allowed us to hire staff not only in Spain, but also in Paris, Basel, Canada… We are small, but we have always had revenues and we have entered into agreements with American companies such as Corino Therapeutics, and Japanese companies such as Nippon Chemiphar. We now aim to become much larger, and to that end, we decided to go public last year.

What leads you to have so much confidence in AI?

I know that now everyone is talking about investing in AI and developing projects and companies with AI. It wasn’t actually that popular a field when I started investing in it. And not everything works in AI. We’ve had our failures too, but when you succeed in applying it in the right way, you get amazing results. AI is transforming the medical industry and the world. It has already revolutionized the way drugs are discovered. And SOM Biotech uses artificial intelligence to discover new indications for existing drugs, reducing the cost and time it takes to bring an effective drug to market. SOMAIPRO, our AI engine, is a differentiated, clinically validated platform. It is based on genetic algorithms and offers proven predictivity, reducing development time, risks, and costs.

What have been your most successful products so far?

SOM3355 has certainly shown good results. For Huntington’s disease, there are currently only two drugs approved in the United States and one in Europe. We aim to expand treatment options, as we did with SOM0061 in 2020 to fight Covid-19. In the United States, we collaborate a lot with the University of Minnesota, the University of Ohio, and the University of Alabama. And all our activities have proven to be successful. Our drug repurposing activities focus on “orphan diseases” with high unmet medical needs, high potential market values, and high regulatory and intellectual property protections. Drug repurposing significantly reduces drug development costs and time and represents a growing market, currently estimated at $317 billion.

Do you plan on continuing to keep your headquarters in Spain?

I lived for a time in the United States and am open to opening offices there as well. Southern Europe is cheaper for research and very effective in terms of scientific quality and talent.

How do you view the startup sector and the economy in Spain?

There are many “brains” and talents in Spain. In the medical and research sector, many important publications are in Spanish. Many local companies have helped and supported us, but I also think that many Spanish entrepreneurs are not yet prepared to do business outside of Spain. This is definitely a limiting factor. It is still difficult to emerge as a startup here in the biotech sector, and I am convinced that Spanish entrepreneurs should also gain a lot of experience abroad in order to grow the local economy. But I am certainly positive about the future, and I am sure that the situation will improve quickly. I believe in a great global collaboration between all countries worldwide.

Original Forbes article in Italian:

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