Six years ago, Geof Hannigan, Ph.D., joined Merck as a computational biologist.
What is computational biology? He explained that it’s the study of biological mechanisms and phenomena using computers and cloud computing rather than traditional tools like pipettes, vials and lab equipment. In this role, his work spans machine learning, analytics, clinical study, and design and discovery.
It was in his work with discovery that Hannigan first began connecting Merck’s institutional expertise with startups.
“I observed that many early-stage startups have great science and technology that could be really impactful for patients, but they may hit a wall and need help engaging with pharma and deeply understanding pharma’s needs,” he said. “That got me thinking about how we could engage with some startups to provide guidance and advice as those companies mature. If we were able to help startups meet goals, that could also help Merck because we could accelerate technologies that are potentially valuable to what we’re trying to do.”
“Many early-stage startups have great science and technology that could be really impactful for patients, but they may hit a wall and need help in engaging with pharma and deeply understanding pharma’s needs. That got me thinking.”
Together with Microsoft for Startups, McKesson Ventures, the Merck Global Health Innovation Fund (Merck GHI), Northpond Ventures and the New Jersey Innovation Institute, Hannigan and his team at Merck began building out a new program to support innovation at biomedical startups located in the United States and Canada: the Merck Digital Sciences Studio.
“In some ways, we’re a startup supporting startups,” Hannigan said to describe launching the Merck Digital Sciences Studio.
MDS Studio’s “founder-friendly” approach offers $150,000 in seed funding through a simple agreement for equity (SAFE).
“We aim to be light touch in what we get from startups,” Hannigan said. “We want the companies to be successful and not have to fulfill burdensome requirements to us.”
The other differentiator, according to Hannigan, is the program’s robust engagement with the biopharma industry. Unlike some other incubators, accelerators and venture studios with a focus on a broader tech environment, MDS Studio offers insights into pharma.
There are many perks that startups can access through MDS Studio. “We can help answer questions about engaging with pharma, creating and structuring deals and offerings, thinking about product-market fit or even give the opportunity to network across Merck.”
The studio has also developed a program that allows startups to have meaningful conversations with scientists or professionals with deep expertise in real problems that startups need to solve. As the first cohort of startups come to fruition, the startups are able to access the new perspectives and meaningful insights making their work possible.
In addition to the connections startup leaders can make with Merck and industry partners, MDS Studio startups are able to interact with companies completing similar work. Through meetings and facilitated discussions, the startups are able to advise each other on solutions across dispersed geographies and a wide range of technological innovations.
“We offer an accelerated program, but it’s also a model for startup engagement,” Hannigan said. “We can scale this model across geographies and focus areas to create even more value out of what we’ve started.”
The Deep BGC Program
Even while Hannigan leads the Merck Digital Sciences Studio, he continues to work as a principal scientist for the company — work that encompasses a variety of projects, several of which are in the machine learning space. In particular, Hannigan collaborated with machine learning experts to build a program called Deep BGC, a deep learning algorithm that allows scientists to identify biosynthetic gene clusters out of genomes.
“Google will identify parts of your sentence to enable better search,” he explained. “For us, it’s a matter of understanding the language of life — the genome — instead of spoken or written words.” For Hannigan, working alongside the Deep BGC team has informed his work with startups in the studio as well, as he is better able to relate to the projects advancing data analysis and machine learning in the biopharma space.
Investing in the Future
Prioritizing innovation isn’t anything new at Merck. “Merck is invested in digital enablement and the data sciences in this digital age,” Hannigan said. And that investment is exactly what built Merck Digital Sciences Studio.
When Hannigan saw an opportunity to support startups with Merck’s infrastructure and resources, he met with his manager and site head, who connected him with additional leaders. He then partnered closely with David Rubin, Ph.D., of Merck GHI, and as excitement began to build across the company, Hannigan and Rubin built connections internally and with partners and a network formed to support the work.
“We have a community within Merck that is engaged and interested in the project,” he said. “And those are the same structures that support individual development within the company.”
With Merck’s programs for employee development and professional growth in mind, Hannigan has found opportunities for the startups to experience similar levels of support.
“We offer our cohort startups a buddy system that helps them access support within Merck,” he said. “They have someone to connect with inside the organization, and it’s also a great opportunity to expose Merck employees to the startups and innovative work through open houses and networking events.”
Through engagement that is both formal and informal, Merck Digital Sciences Studio is building new structures to support innovation that pushes work ahead for both startups and Merck’s team.
“Innovative groups within our existing organization have done a lot of work to make this happen,” Hannigan said. “We are all working together to develop entirely new things.”