Driving the evolution of AI-enabled drug discovery – a global perspective

We often receive questions about global trends in Artificial Intelligence (AI) for drug discovery. Over the coming months, we will explore  these questions in a series of blogs. Today, we address one of the most frequently asked questions: which geographies are driving the evolution of AI drug discovery first and foremost and what are predictions for the future?

The United States

The US remains the global leader in the AI drug discovery (AI-DD) space. Above all, the US is a magnet for AI talent. The majority of AI PhD graduates in the US are foreign, and  81.8% stay there after graduation. Deep Knowledge Analytics’ ‘Top 100 AI Leaders Drug Discovery and Advanced Healthcare’ features 68 US-based researchers and entrepreneurs. 

Of the 230 startups active in the global AI-DD space, 123 are in the US. These include world-leading players like Genesis Therapeutics, Insitro and Recursion Pharmaceuticals. Innovation goes hand in hand with a thriving private funding ecosystem. The US is home to 35 of the top-50 AI-DD investors, including powerhouses like A16Z and Alphabet’s VC arm GV. 

Public markets are also booming: Five AI-DD companies have successfully completed US IPOs: Recursion Pharmaceuticals (RXRX), Relay Therapeutics (RLAY), Berkeley Lights (BLI), Lantern Pharma (LTRN), and Schrodinger (SDGR). More recently, Boston-based Valo Health went public via a $2.8 billion SPAC merger.

The rise of China 

As in many other sectors, the rise of China in the AI-DD space has been astonishing. In 2017, the central government launched an ambitious program to make China a world leader in AI by 2030. This has led to an explosion in research and innovation across the field. China ranks second in AI talent concentration in the total number of AI researchers. China-based researchers account for 22.4% of the total AI research papers and rank first in the total number of citations. Although, when it comes to research prominence, it still ranks behind its European and American counterparts in terms of highly cited conference papers. 

Chinese AI ambitions go hand in hand with important changes in their biotech space. China is becoming one of the largest healthcare markets in the world, projected to reach $145-175 billion in sales by 2022. China’s 1.4 billion population and its massive healthcare system can provide enormous datasets for AI training. 

Chinese tech giants are also entering the field: Last year, Tencent launched iDrug, an AI-driven drug discovery platform, and led a $155 million Series A for AI-driven healthcare company iCarbonX. Baidu’s founder and CEO Robin Li recently announced that he would enter the field of AI-enabled structure-based drug discovery. In November, he co-founded BioMap, which just closed a $100 million Series A this July

Private funding is growing at a tremendous speed. China has at least ten privately-owned AI startups valued at more than US$1 billion. Hong Kong-based AI-DD firm Insilico Medicine raised a whopping $255 million Series C in June. Beijing-based StoneWise Technology raised $100 million in Series B and B+ financing rounds. The American-Chinese firm XtalPi raised a $319 million round C led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund. Smaller companies are also showing promise, such as Shanghai-based Nutshell Therapeutics, which just closed a $20 million Series A round. 


Europe is a pharma powerhouse. And currently, all of the European pharma giants are engaged in AI for drug discovery partnerships. This includes several agreements with European-bred AI-DD startups. For example, AstraZeneca and London-based BenevolentAI joined forces to identify new drug candidates for chronic kidney disease and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. The German pharma company Bayer and Oxford-based Exscientia announced a collaboration to leverage AI in cardiovascular and oncology drug discovery. In Paris, Sanofi reached an agreement with Aqemia to deploy their AI and quantum-inspired DD platform to discover effective treatments for COVID-19. Iktos signed a pact with Pfizer to use AI for drug discovery and with UCB for AI-powered retrosynthesis.

Europe has a remarkable concentration of top-level AI research. However, despite its long tradition of inventiveness and talent, Europe has had difficulties transitioning from academic research to the market. While Europe has the largest public R&D spend, its private counterpart amounts to just 19% of the global total, behind China (24%) and the US (28%).

However, the emerging AI-DD space might present a new opportunity as European AI-DD firms continue to attract tech investment. UK-based BenevolentAI and Exscientia latest rounds are among the largest private investments in the space. Other deals worth noting include Healx $56M Series B, the Danish AI-driven immunotherapy firm Evaxion Biotech IPO, and the partnership between French startup Iktos and Pfizer.


Canada is known for its strong position in the global AI landscape. The modern explosion in AI can trace its roots to the work of the ‘Canadian AI Mafia’ led by the ‘Godfathers of Deep Learning’, Turing award winners Geoff Hinton, Yann LeCun, and Yoshua Bengio. Canada continues to be at the forefront of the field thanks to institutions and initiatives like the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Creative Destruction Labs. One of its most promising portfolio companies— Deep Genomics— just closed a $180M in Series C Financing, led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2. Another Canadian company to watch is AbCellera that went public last December in a $555.5 million IPO


Japanese pharmaceutical companies are also launching AI-DD campaigns. The collaboration between Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma and Exscientia, with an AI-discovered candidate for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder now at the clinical stage, is a case in point. Meanwhile, Taisho Pharmaceutical joined forces with Insilico Medicine to identify compounds to slow down the cellular effects of aging. Japan is also home to interesting AI-DD startups. Kyoto-based firm Hacarus is a notable example; the firm has reached a research agreement with the University of Tokyo to use its AI tools to fight Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Emerging actors on the AI-drug discovery scene

Several additional regions are starting to gain global recognition. For instance, in South Korea, Daewoong Pharmaceutical signed a partnership agreement with Oncocross to use their AI-enabled drug development system. Standigm, another Korean company that opened a UK branch last month, works both with SK Chemicals and Excelra enabling its partners to use AI for drug discovery. Furthermore, Korean Wooridul Pharmaceutical and Seoul National University are also active in this sphere, utilizing AI to find new treatments for diabetes and dementia.

Further south, Singapore is an established innovation hub with several AI-drug discovery companies. Prominent examples are Engine Biosciences that closed a $43 million round earlier this year, and SoftBank-backed PatSnap. The ecosystem also includes Gero AI, which advances longevity research with digital technologies, and HistoIndex, developing AI tools for biomedicine. 

In Australia, there is also an active environment of AI start-ups, like Pending.ai, working with Elsevier to create chemistry retrosynthesis tools for different applications, including drug discovery. We will also watch closely how the ecosystem reacts to the recent ruling by an Australian patent court on the ownership of IP developed by AI. 

While we focused on the most influential regions, there are many more great teams working across the globe. At Arctoris, we are proud to partner with AI drug discovery companies from across the world. If you’d like more geographical insights or explore how we can work together to accelerate your research with robotics-powered experimentation and data generation, please reach out to us at welcome@arctoris.com.