University of Alberta spinout DrugBank closes $9 million from Brightspark, Amplitude, Theodorus to fuel drug discovery with its data platform

Training machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms requires quality data. In the pharmaceutical sector, obtaining this data can be tough because most of the knowledge about drugs is contained in scientific publications in an unstructured text format.

Enter Edmonton-based DrugBank, which uses a “hybrid approach” that involves AI, natural language processing (NLP), and scientific experts to structure this data and make it usable for pharma companies and academic researchers. With over 12 million annual users, 300-plus open source projects, more than 26,000 academic citations, and a customer base that includes 13 of the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical companies, DrugBank claims to be “the world’s largest online database of structured drug and drug target information.”

“Eventually, most of drug discovery … and most of medicine will be powered by AI.”
-Mike Wilson, DrugBank

To date, the University of Alberta spinout has achieved most of its growth—including its 200-plus paying customers—organically. Now, with $9 million CAD in seed financing led by Montréal-based Brightspark Ventures, and supported by a group of strategic investors from the precision medicine and pharma spaces, DrugBank is ready to grow its team and expand its AI capabilities.

In an interview with BetaKit, DrugBank co-founder and CEO Mike Wilson said he sees “a lot of room” for the startup to grow in the pharma industry, where it serves a mix of giants like Merck and smaller firms that are leveraging AI in the drug discovery and precision medicine spaces.

“Those are two areas that are very data dependent … and we see them growing a lot,” said Wilson. “Eventually, most of drug discovery will be powered by AI and most of medicine will be powered by AI, and it will be using this data in much, much more advanced ways.”

DrugBank’s all-equity March seed round was led by Brightspark, with participation from Montréal-based precision health-focused investment fund Amplitude Ventures and Belgium’s Theodorus Investment Funds—which has “a strong network” of connections to pharma companies operating in the country. The round also saw support from existing investors AccelerateFund and Milad Alucozai from BoxOne Ventures, who led DrugBank’s 2020 pre-seed financing. The raise brings DrugBank’s total funding to $10.6 million CAD.

DrugBank’s origins date back to 2006, when it was launched as a University of Alberta project in Dr. David Wishart’s lab focused on helping academic researchers gain access to structured info about drugs. In 2011, the initiative became a part of the federally-funded, Edmonton-based Metabolomics Innovation Centre.

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