A company named EQRx made headlines in January 2020 when it raked in $200 million to embark on a promise to “remake medicine” — and to do it faster and at lower prices than the traditional pharmaceutical industry. Its lofty goal is to release its first drug in 5 years, and a total of 10 medications in a decade (indicating that it expects the rate of research, development, and approval to increase exponentially as it goes).
But as it emerged victorious from this Series A funding round at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, EQRx’s mission remained shrouded in a cloud of typically opaque venture capitalist-speak, leaving an unanswered question lingering: What is this company really trying to work on, and how does it plan to pull it off?
According to the press release from Andreesen Horowitz, which co-led the investment, the company’s biggest bet is revamping the process of drug development:
“Often the biggest innovations in technology address the process, not the product. Take Amazon, for example; by building a different retailer from the ground up and infusing tech throughout, they were able to deliver products faster, at a lower price and a higher margin. This simply can’t be done by revamping an existing company, as many retailers and other companies have tried. In much the same way, EQRx is now reimagining how medicines are created, tested, and commercialized by re-engineering the system itself.”
“EQRx shifts science risk to execution risk by focusing on known biology, where drug targets have been validated and proven valuable for treating a disease … Engineering a better product is good, but engineering a better process is best.”
Peel back buzzy distractions like “integrate data science,” “re-engineering the system,” and the dripping praise for Amazon — a company that has been exposed numerous times for the labor and copyright violations that at least partly enable it to “deliver products faster, at a lower price and a higher margin” — and you do get some telling nuggets.
EQRx seems most concerned with becoming the pharmaceutical supply chain, rather than adding products to it, and doing so by promoting me-too drugs for new indications.
It’s a noble stance, as thousands of diseases remain untreatable — many of them cancers — and drug prices for the ones that are treatable skyrocket, largely as the result of profiteering that disables patients from accessing life-saving medication. But some experts remain skeptical that EQRx’s approach stands a chance.
Roderick Beijersbergen, PhD, the head of the robotics and screening center at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, says that focusing on known targets alone does not set this company apart from what the pharmaceutical industry at large does already — but that it might be able to set itself apart on pricing if it takes an uncharacteristically transparent approach.
“One aspect that can reduce costs is that at this moment, it is not very transparent how [the pharmaceutical] industry determines pricing for drugs in relation to their investments and profits,” he told Cancer Therapy Advisor. “If this would be more transparent, discussions on lower pricing would be more realistic.”
But there are multiple other obstacles to bringing down price, he cautioned, and EQRx will have to hurdle them as well.