Houston data science company expands pandemic-inspired research tool
Source – https://houston.innovationmap.com/
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.
- 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.
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.
One of Mercury Data Science’s customers adopted the 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.”
According to a recently released report, a few key industries in Houston have attracted the bulk of the city’s venture capital investment dollars.
The Houston Tech Report by the Greater Houston Partnership and Houston Exponential has revealed that the city is home to 8,800 tech-related firms, including over 700 venture-backed startups that have attracted over $2.6 billion in VC funding over the past five years. Annual VC investment has tripled in that same timeframe — from $284 million in 2016 to $753 million in 2020.
“Houston is a city that has been leading the way for decades, with breakthrough innovations that have truly changed the world,” says Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, in a news release. “Over the past few years, we have been working to transform an already incredible economy into one that competes as a leading digital tech city.”
Zooming into the industries attracting the most capital in Houston, life sciences and oil and gas technology continue to reign supreme. Of the VC dollars going into Houston companies, 17 percent goes into life science companies and 17 percent goes into oil and gas, according to the report. Cleantech and Oncology are both niches in Houston that have seen growth in VC investment.
Software as a service has seen significant growth since 2011, and represents the third-most invested in industry with 14 percent of the VC investment.
Contributing to the innovation ecosystem’s growth is an increase in startup development organizations — the city now has added over 30 SDOs including non-profits, incubators/accelerators, coworking spaces and makerspaces since 2017 — and access to tech talent. According to the report, Houston has the 12th largest tech sector in the U.S. with 235,000 tech workers, and this sector generates $28.1 billion to the region’s GDP.
“Houston in 2020 had not one but two unicorns (private tech companies exceeding a $1 billion valuation), our first ever,” says Harvin Moore, president of HX. “That’s a reflection of both the rate of growth and early stage of our ecosystem. We will see an increasing number of startups as these companies continue to grow and others follow.”