by the numbers

Houston data science company expands pandemic-inspired research tool

Mercury Data Science has taken a tool it originally developed for COVID-19 research and applied it into new areas of research and innovation. Photo via Getty Images

Last fall, Houston-based Mercury Data Science released an AI-driven app designed to help researchers unlock COVID-19-related information tucked into biomedical literature. The app simplified access to data about subjects like genes, proteins, drugs, and diseases.

Now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Mercury Data Science is applying this technology to areas like agricultural biotech, cancer therapeutics, and neuroscience. It's an innovation that arose from the pandemic but that promises broader, long-lasting benefits.

Angela Holmes, chief operating officer of Mercury Data Science, says the platform relies on an AI concept known as natural language processing (NLP) to mine scientific literature and deliver real-time results to researchers.

"We developed this NLP platform as a publicly available app to enable scientists to efficiently discover biological relationships contained in COVID research publications," Holmes says.

The platform:

  • Contains dictionaries with synonyms to identify things like genes and proteins that may go by various names in scientific literature.
  • Produces data visualizations of relationships among various biological functions.
  • Summarizes the most important data points on a given topic from an array of publications.
  • Depends on data architecture to automate how data is retrieved and processed.

In agricultural biotech, the platform enables researchers to sift through literature to dig up data about plant genetics, Holmes says. The lack of gene-naming standards in the world of plants complicates efforts to search data about plant genetics, she says.


Angela Holmes is the COO of MDS. Photo via mercuryds.com


The platform's ability to easily ferret out information about plant genetics "allows companies seeking gene-editing targets to make crops more nutritious and more sustainable as the climate changes to have a rapid way to de-risk their genomic analyses by quickly assessing what is already known versus what is unknown," Holmes says.

The platform allowed one of Mercury Data Science's agricultural biotech customers to comb through scientific literature about plant genetics to support targeted gene editing in a bid to improve crop yields.

In the field of cancer therapeutics and other areas of pharmaceuticals, the platform helps prioritize drug candidates, Holmes says. One of Mercury Data Science's customers used the platform to extract data from about 2 terabytes (or 2 trillion bytes) of information to evaluate drug candidates. The information included drug studies, clinical trials, and patents. Armed with that data, Mercury Data Science's cancer therapy client signed agreements with new pharmaceutical partners.

The platform also applies to the hunt for biomarkers in neuroscience, including disorders such as depression, anxiety, autism and multiple sclerosis. Data delivered through the platform helps bring new neurobehavioral therapeutics to market, Holmes says.

"An NLP platform to automatically process newly published literature for more insight on the search for digital biomarkers represents a great opportunity to accelerate research in this area," she says.

Mercury Data Science has experience in the field of digital biomarkers, including work for one customer to develop a voice and video platform to improve insights into patients with depression and anxiety in order to improve treatment of those conditions.

The new platform — initially developed as a tool to combat COVID-19 — falls under the startup's vast umbrella of artificial intelligence and data science. Founded in 2017, Mercury Data Science emerged because portfolio companies of the Houston-based Mercury Fund were seeking to get a better handle on AI and data science.

Last April, Angela Wilkins, founder, co-CEO and chief technology officer of Mercury Data Science, left the company to lead Rice University's Ken Kennedy Institute. Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of the Mercury Fund, remains at Mercury Data Science as CEO.

The Ken Kennedy Institute fosters collaborations in computing and data. Wilkins replaced Jan Odegard as executive director of the institute. Odegard now is senior director of industry and academic partnerships at The Ion, the Rice-led innovation hub.

Wilkins "is an academic at heart with considerable experience working with faculty and students, and an entrepreneur who has helped build a successful technology company," Lydia Kavraki, director of the Ken Kennedy Institute, said in a news release announcing Wilkins' new role. "Over her career, Angela has worked on data and computing problems in a number of disciplines, including engineering, life sciences, health care, agriculture, policy, technology, and energy."

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Building Houston

 
 

Craig Lawrence and Neal Dikeman co-founded a new venture capital firm focused on funding technology as a part of the energy transition. Photos courtesy

Two Texas entrepreneurs recently announced what they say is the first venture fund in Texas exclusively dedicated to investing in energy transition technologies.

Houston-based Energy Transition Ventures — led by Craig Lawrence and Neal Dikeman — officially emerged from stealth mode with anchor investment from two operating companies from the GS Group of Korea. The fund closed its first capital in February this, completed its first investment in March, and looks to close new investors for a total fund size of $75 million, according to a press release.

"In the near future, energy is going to be delivered and used completely differently. Marginal and average energy and CO2e prices are now on a long term deflationary trend," says Dikeman in the release. "There are 500 multi-billion dollar energy companies globally, and massive portions of global GDP, that are going to get disrupted in the energy transition, from energy & power, transport, real estate, industrial to consumer to agriculture."

Dikeman, who is the managing partner at Old Growth Ventures, a family office investor, also chairs the board at nonprofit cleantech accelerator Cleantech.org, virtual research institute. In 2001, he co-founded San Francisco based cleantech investment firm Jane Capital in 2001.

"We've been successful being highly selective as investors, and using our deep networks and understanding of energy and technology to avoid pitfalls other investors faced. It is exciting to be off the bench to do it again," he continues.

Lawrence, who's also been a part of the cleantech revolution for a chunk of his career, previously started and led the cleantech investing effort at Accel Partners and was previously vice president of product at software company Treverity. The duo chose the Energy Capital of the World to headquarter ETV.

"Texas is the energy capital of the world, and outside of corporate venture capital, there are not many venture funds in the state," says Lawrence. "So it makes sense to start an energy transition focused fund here as the latest wave of clean technology investing accelerates."

ETV will fund from seed to series B with select late-stage opportunities, according to the release, and will colocate a Silicon Valley office with GS Futures, the Silicon Valley-based corporate venture capital arm of energy, construction, and retail conglomerate GS Group of Korea.

"We're excited to be investing in ETV and in the future of energy," says Tae Huh, managing director of GS Futures, in the release. "Energy Transition Ventures is our first investment from the new GS Futures fund, and we've already run successful pilots in Korea with three US startups even before this fund closed an investment – we are working to accelerate the old model of corporate venture dramatically."

Jon Wellinghoff, former chair of FERC, and Deb Merril, president of EDF Retail and co-founder and former co-CEO of Just Energy, have also joined ETV as advisors. GS Energy executive Q Song moves from Seoul, Korea, to join the Houston ETV investment team, according to the release.

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