Scotland has been chasing its next tech unicorn for some time now. So, when a university professor comes along and vows to create a $10 billion company, it’s bound to ruffle feathers.
Lee Cronin is not your typical academic, even though he occupies the regius chair for chemistry at the University of Glasgow. He brims with self-confidence, swagger even, that is both beguiling and redolent of a man on a mission.
Where that mission takes him is, of course, another matter. But the desire and hunger for success is there, as exemplified in a funny and inspiring talk he delivered at Futurescot’s Digital Glasgow event in October.
In the not-too-distant future, Cronin would like not one but two giga factories in Glasgow – in Govan and Maryhill – harnessing the power of his “chemputer” to change the face of chemistry as we know it.
His company, Chemify, has just secured $43 million from an investment round – and his breakthrough innovation – to digitise the process of manufacturing molecules in medicines – has been praised by a Nobel Laureate.
Mark Logan, Scotland’s chief entrepreneur, even compared him to Elon Musk – but “not an asshole”. Cronin himself is happy to make some unflattering remarks about the billionaire tech mogul, but there can be no doubt that his ambitions are as high.
“The space of possible materials and molecules is so large, you can’t imagine it,” says Cronin. “It’s like the space of novels you could write on typewriter. The only way you could even possibly start to scratch the surface of an infinitesimally large number of possibilities is by digitisation.
“And so it basically solves one of the oldest problems in chemistry right now, which is, ‘how do I discover and make a molecule that’s going to have a design function?’”
The funding Chemify secured includes $34 million from venture investors led by Triatomic Capital in the United States, as well as $9 million from the UK government’s Innovation Accelerators programme.
Computerising chemical design is not new, and artificial intelligence (AI) is already being used in drug discovery. But Cronin believes it is the manufacturing aspect of the pharmaceutical industry that is ripe for disruption.
Blending AI models with robotics, in a lab setting, is where the chemputer comes in. And Cronin’s idea is to get investment for his giga factories, and blow apart the century-old production model.
At the Digital Glasgow conference, he showed an audience his vision of how such a facility would work. Whilst not going into specifics, he says Chemify stands on the cusp of signing its first major deal, worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the societal benefits are where the technology could truly revolutionise our understanding of medical science. Although the vaccine programme for Covid-19 was sped up by the likes of Moderna – itself a hybrid between traditional pharma and an AI company – the pace of coming up with new molecules and compounds for new treatments and therapeutics could be boundless.
Cronin says: “What this allows us to do is to discover new drugs much faster, orders of magnitude faster, and to manufacture them on-demand, much more reliably. The other thing that is super-important is that most chemicals that are known are not accessible because the ability to make them is not general.”
He adds: “It’s a bit like when you publish a book, you order a print run, you print 100,000 copies, and then you sell them. Only here, you do the print run, you run out of copies and no one can make them again. What we have done is literally make the Kindle for chemistry where we can take any book and make it readable again, so you can basically make any molecule on demand.”
Cronin regards the discovery as not only crucial to advancing chemistry, but also to ensuring that supply chains can be resilient.
And he wants to take the chemputer to the moon. “I presented the technology to Jeff Bezos in March. When Artemis goes up, it’d be great to be able to have a chemputer on board. Because ultimately, science will have to be done remotely.
“If someone has a life-threatening ailment whilst they’re on the moon, and you don’t happen to have the drug there but you have a chemputer nearby, then it can cook up the molecule you need from the code, from the base set of ingredients.”
Demand for the chemputer is already high, says Cronin. But he is only just getting started. He sees the platform as potentially the “Amazon for chemistry”, with on-demand manufacturing capabilities for new molecules turbo-charging the global pharma industry.
As well as wanting to invest in the Glasgow factories, he wants facilities in Basel, Switzerland – a global pharma hub – as well as the US, Singapore and Australia.
Trying to put his discovery into terms humans can relate to is difficult. But Cronin predicts that every molecule manufactured in industry will eventually go through his chemputer’s programming language. “It’s that fundamental,” he says.
The origin story of Chemify, ironically, is a literal origin story. Born in Ipswich, Cronin comes from a working-class background and his struggles at school would nowadays probably be recognised as neurodiverse.
He was interested in chemistry as a means to an end, as his under-lying passion was – and remains – trying to discover the origins of life. By chance, he had a “really good chemistry teacher” when he was 17, and that set him on the path towards an eventual PhD in the subject. But he also had a passion for technology, and built his first computer as a child.
“Why I wanted to start Chemify was actually to build a search engine to search for the origin of life,” he says.
“I realised the infrastructure didn’t exist and, actually, building a search engine for chemistry is probably more practically important with origin of life because I can digitise chemistry. And that’s kind of how it happened.”
Cronin comes across – or projects himself – as an outsider. He says he doesn’t suffer from “imposter syndrome” but he was often branded – or felt like – an “idiot” for some of the ways he has gone about his academic work.
Whilst many of his peers are supportive, others remain “super sceptical” of his claims, or science. It brings to mind the experience of Katalin Karikó – one of the two scientists who recently won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on mRNA vaccines, which became the bedrock for billions of Covid shots globally.
Despite her achievements, she languished for years without funding or a permanent academic position. Cronin counts his blessings, and he says he has been well supported by the University of Glasgow, who gave him the freedom to explore his creative side.
He says: “The amazing thing that Glasgow University let me do, almost by accident, was I convinced them to let me take people from computer science, mathematics, engineering, physics and biology – as well as chemistry – into my lab to do a chemistry PhD.
“And that little trick allowed me to shortcut the burden of trying to collaborate with people. It’s not that I don’t like collaborating, it’s just really difficult if you want to truly build a new discipline.”
That new discipline has essentially provided the building blocks for Chemify, and Cronin is clearly grateful for the support. But now he senses an opportunity and wants to scale fast.
“I have to be of singular focus to deliver as quickly as possible,” he says. “I’m building a Silicon Valley company in Glasgow so I have to be unrelenting, otherwise it won’t happen.”
In an off-the-cuff remark, he also told the audience in Glasgow that the only thing likely to stop him would be his death. Macabre overtones aside, it’s clear Cronin is not going to give up his quest easily. And arguably nor should Scotland, if it wants to help trailblazers like Cronin build companies of global size and stature.
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