When Sam Altman, the CEO of artificial intelligence firm OpenAI and a well-known tech investor, saw the pandemic coming, he started investing in biotech companies that could combat it, and fast. Eventually, he had funded roughly 20 different efforts, a mix of investments and philanthropy.
“I think people always try to help in any situation the way they know how,” Altman said. “The one thing I know how to do is fund companies.”
But as he talked to these companies, the tech veteran, who ran the legendary accelerator YCombinator until 2019, was in for a shock. One executive told him a trial would cost about “two.” Two million dollars, Altman asked? That didn’t sound bad. No, the exec said. He meant $200 million.
The fruit of Altman’s frustration: a new effort to speed up Covid-19 clinical trials that is being unveiled Tuesday. As part of that effort, TrialSpark, a startup that is aimed at lowering the cost — and increasing the speed — of clinical trials, will work with companies and researchers seeking to accelerate Covid-19 research.
TrialSpark’s model is based on finding patients digitally, often through social media, and using telemedicine, remote data collection, and even at-home testing and specimen collection to test drugs at home.
“We’re pushing ourselves … to think about things for Covid differently, more urgently,” said Mark Fishman, a Harvard Professor who was the founding president of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, who has come on board to help with the project. “You know, this is not your standard trial. It has to be done quickly, but it has to be done well. And you’ve seen already the problems of trials being done or reported in a slipshod fashion.”
The effort, known as Project Covalence, got its start on March 21, when Altman fired off a tweet asking for help setting up clinical trials. This is the most expensive and time-consuming part of the process of drug development.
Among the people he connected with was Benjamine Liu, the CEO and co-founder of TrialSpark, which has raised $87 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, Thrive Capital, and John Doerr. Soon, it enticed Michael Mina of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to use the platform.
The project’s first study, run by Mina, will be an effort to understand how Covid-19 has moved through Massachusetts using diagnostic tests that check for both the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, and the presence of antibodies to the virus, which indicate that patients have been exposed to the virus and recovered.
Mina said the research will differ from other so-called “serological studies” because it will use sampling methods analogous to political polling techniques to get a representative group of people.
“We all understand that you can’t go to one small community and extrapolate how that population is going to vote, because it can be very biased,” Mina said. The study, he said, “will give us a measure of the effectiveness of all the strategies various policymakers are putting in place.”
Liu, the TrialSpark founder, said the company uses Facebook and Instagram to recruit patients among other methods. For Mina’s trial, large databases akin to this that might be used for political polling are being used.
“We want to be deliberate as the information is collected to make sure we continue to expand the cohort in a way that it’s demographically quite representative,” Liu said.
Part of the advantage, Liu said, is that the platform can remove the need to “reinvent the wheel” every time a trial is started. Also, TrialSpark, he said, can conduct studies outside a hospital, which is important during outbreaks when hospitals are overburdened and patients do not want to go to the hospital because it could increase their risk of becoming infected.
For grant-funded and not-for-profit efforts, like Mina’s and a study sponsored by the biotech resTORbio that will be included in Project Covalence, Liu says that TrialSpark will run studies at cost. For for-profit efforts, TrialSpark will charge its normal rate.
But it won’t always mean that things speed up, Fishman said. “Some of what we’re trying to do is actually put the brakes on things and tell people, look, I’m sorry, that’s going to take you two more months.” That’s another reality of drug development: haste makes waste.