Game Changer

The Investor Using Venture Capital and Machine Learning to Cure Cancer

Andreessen Horowitz’s Vijay Pande is betting that money plus computing power will equal medical breakthroughs.
Illustration: Sam Kerr for Bloomberg Businessweek

Vijay Pande, a lifelong coder who holds a couple of degrees in physics, doesn’t seem like he’d be the guy to thwart death.

But Pande, a general partner at the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz since 2015, is providing money muscle to computer-powered medical startups including BioAge Labs, which uses genomics data to create anti-aging drugs, and Asimov, which is programming cells to fight disease. (Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek, is an investor in Andreessen Horowitz.)

One of Pande’s first investments, Freenome Inc., uses machine learning to help detect cancer in its earliest stages by reading signals sent by the immune system. If successful, the technique could lead to cheaper, less invasive treatments. “Andreessen Horowitz pioneered this,” says Freenome co-founder Gabriel Otte of the wave of investors funding biotech-machine-learning hybrids. “Freenome wouldn’t exist without that intersection.”

A scientific polymath, Pande likes to tinker at the cutting edge, viewing progress with a dose of healthy cynicism. He was a finalist in the 1988 Westinghouse Science Talent Search for his computer simulation of the Strategic Defense Initiative antimissile system, nicknamed Star Wars. SDI Director Lieutenant General James Abrahamson invited Pande, then 17, to the Pentagon to discuss his theories on why the system’s lasers wouldn’t work. Over the years, Pande has taught computer science, biophysics, chemistry, and biology at Stanford, where he still runs a lab. In 2014 he started advising Andreessen Horowitz as “professor in residence.” Within a year, Pande went to work full time at the firm, having realized he could accomplish more as an investor, fostering multiple companies.

His belief in the impact that machine learning could have on medicine is met with skepticism by some investor colleagues. “Computers have been pitched as the savior before,” Pande says. Still, other venture firms have embraced a computing-intensive approach to biotech, including Charles River Ventures, Founders Fund, GV (formerly Google Ventures), and Section 32.

The focus on companies such as Freenome is part of a broader shift in the biotech community from therapeutics toward diagnostics. So far, Pande’s portfolio companies display more potential than actual breakthroughs: no IPOs or acquisitions. But he has no regrets about leaving academia. “The scale of what I can do is much greater,” he says.

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