Hillel's Tech Corner: Tel Aviv start-up Immunai aims to map immune system

Understanding the immune system better could lead to effective cancer therapies.

Tel Aviv startup Immunai aim to map the immune system (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tel Aviv startup Immunai aim to map the immune system
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Having done a lot of research for this column over the past year, the world of healthcare, technology and the intersection of the two have become incredibly fascinating to me. The pinnacle of my interest with the miracle that is the human body is the immune system.
When I read about cutting-edge innovation intended to activate our immune system and kill off cancerous cells in our body, I wonder, “What is this immune system everyone speaks of, and how do we learn more about it and its evidently endless capabilities?”
Immunai – a New York-Tel Aviv start-up that just emerged from stealth mode last week – was founded by actual geniuses and funded by the country’s top investors. What is this company’s mission? To map out the human immune system. As soon as I heard of their mission, I had three words to say: “Tell me more.”
The company was founded by Noam Solomon, a Harvard and MIT post-doctoral researcher, and former Palantir engineer Luis Voloch, who have been working under the radar for the past two years. The two founders share a passion for computational biology and systems engineering, hence their synergy when starting Immunai.
The team came out of stealth mode with the launch of the company along with a $20 million round of financing from Viola Ventures and TLV Partners.
So, mapping out our immune system sounds pretty science-fiction to me. The company has already set up clinical partnerships with more than 10 medical centers, and commercial partnerships with several biopharma companies. So, it’s not so science-fiction after all.
In order to give cancer treatments the ability to leverage our own immune systems, the founders first set their goal on “seeing the immune system in full granularity.”
The company uses a combination of hardware and software to profile single cells and gain insights into the effects of various treatments on the human immune system. This is a huge challenge due to the diverse nature of patients and recipients of the various cell therapies and cancer immunotherapies.
Now to get a little geeky and technical. Immunai generates over a terabyte (that would be 1,000 GB) of data from an individual blood sample.
The company’s proprietary database and machine-learning tools map incoming data to different cell types and create profiles of immune responses based on differentiated elements. Then, the database of immune profiles supports the discovery of biomarkers that can then be monitored for potential changes.
In plain English, Immunai extracts a ridiculous amount of data from a tiny amount of blood, then uses technologies most people can’t even comprehend to analyze that data and extract insights.
“Our mission is to map the immune system with neural networks and transfer learning techniques informed by deep immunology knowledge,” said Voloch.
“We developed the tools and know-how to help every immuno-oncology and cell therapy researcher excel at their job. This helps increase the speed in which drugs are developed and brought to market by elucidating their mechanisms of action and resistance.”
According to Solomon, the company is already in the process of finalizing a seven-figure contract with a Fortune 100 company.
As for the company, there is an office in Israel and New York and over 30 employees currently working full time on this mission. The team is comprised of individuals, over 70% of whom hold PhDs from the top institutions including MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley, Cambridge, Oxford, Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, as well as engineers from Palantir (over 20% of the company are ex-palantirs), Facebook and Google. Even the company’s graphical designer has a PhD from University of Cambridge and post-doc from MIT.
IMMUNAI WAS founded by CEO Noam Solomon and CTO Luis Voloch in December 2018. The two founders were joined by Ansuman Satpathy, a professor of cancer immunology at Stanford University; Danny Wells, a current member of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy; and Dan Littman, a professor of molecular immunology at New York University, all three of whom joined the team as founding scientists.
The team is a multidisciplinary group composed of biologists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and operators who all take an “engineering-first approach to biology.” What is also interesting is that the founders chose to build the engineering center specifically in Tel Aviv because they were looking to tap into one of the best engineering hubs in the world, as they put it, with employees they recruited from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, some of whom were previously trained in the elite IDF tech units. They all have the mindset of “getting stuff done.”
It is worth mentioning that a $20 million seed capital infusion is highly uncommon for Israeli venture capitalists. I guess that’s what happens when you’re building the largest proprietary data set in the world for clinical immunological data for better detection, diagnosis and treatment of disease. Such a mission is expensive, and there is no time to waste on the runway and making sure you have oxygen to manage the company.
Why is this company so incredibly important? Over the last several years, cell therapies and cancer immunotherapies have become the latest innovation in treatment options. We have all heard of immunotherapy using the body’s immune system to target and destroy cancer cells.
Cancers, such as melanoma and lung cancer, have responded well to immunotherapy drugs, and specifically to immune checkpoint inhibitors. However, the immune system is complex and it is not yet known how drugs affect immune cells. Moreover, for costly cell therapies, a slight variation in cell therapy products can have a significant influence on a patient’s response to the therapy or lack thereof.
Solomon explained, “Drugs that improve immune response to cancer are transformational for some patients, but don’t work in 50 to 70% of other patients (in Melanoma and non-small-cell lung cancer, for other cancer indications the situation is even worse),” he said.
“We are trying to understand what therapies work – when they work – by measuring the immune system at high resolutions. We can then use those insights to improve the design of combination therapies.”
A short call with Noam revealed to me what is perhaps the most significant component of this company: its holistic approach to the immune system. While most research examines the effectiveness of specific treatments by looking at the treatment or the threat it is trying to address, Immunai takes a different approach and analyzes it from the perspective of the entire immune system.
As Noam put it, “The immune system is our body’s army and it is in charge of defending our body from external threats [viral and bacterial infections and other outside invaders] and internal problems [cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, etc.].
“Our database has cancer patients’ samples, as well as autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disorders, COVID-19 patients, healthy people and more, and our proprietary transfer-learning deep neural networks transfer insights across indications and therapies.”
To me, this company has an unprecedented mission. As our technology advances, and we come closer than ever before to treating the various types of cancers effectively, it is crucial to understand how these treatments activate the immune system, how they work, and why they sometimes don’t work.
Our body has a built-in protective layer. Getting to know its strengths and weaknesses will enable us to become that much stronger as a species. What could be more important?