How Algorithmiq Hopes to Cure Disease with Quantum Computing

How would you find a grain of sand if you had to search for it on every beach in the universe? That’s the metaphorical challenge Finnish software start-up Algorithm hopes to resolve this through a groundbreaking new partnership with IBM announced today. The Helsinki-based quantum computing company hopes its technology will revolutionize the way we develop new drugs to fight disease.

“We believe there are certain problems that can only be solved using quantum computing,” said Sabrina Maniscalco, CEO and co-founder of Algorithmiq. “The quantum advantage will help break the current drug development block, where life sciences companies are spending more and more on research, but seeing no increase in the number of new drugs.”

Algorithmiq’s software will assist in the all-important drug discovery phase of drug development. Life sciences and pharmaceutical companies are already using powerful computers to model how molecules will behave in the human body — and thus to predict which drugs will work well against which diseases. But while this represents a significant advance over traditional research methods, conventional computers can only run simulations to a certain extent, Maniscalco warns. “We are now reaching the limits of what is possible with this approach,” she says.

Enter quantum computers, which use quantum mechanics to perform certain types of calculations more efficiently — in other words, faster — than traditional machines. With software specifically developed to run on such machines – using complex new kinds of algorithms – there is the potential to break the current ceiling, Maniscalco explains.

“This approach isn’t just improving incrementally, although it will certainly reduce the time and cost of drug discovery,” she says. “It’s really disturbing.”

This is where the grain of sand metaphor comes in. Maniscalco says there is such a thing as 1063 molecules that exist in the universe, each of which can play a role in a new drug. If Algorithmiq’s software runs on a powerful enough computer, she can search them all, she says. For conventional computers, the maximum range is more than 1016.

That’s why today’s deal with IBM is so important. By joining IBM’s Quantum Network, Algorithmiq can offer a commercially viable proposition to life sciences and pharmaceutical companies. They will have access to the hardware and software needed to use quantum computing for drug discovery. Maniscalco thinks the first drugs developed in this way could be available for trials within three years.

For Algorithmiq itself, that potentially represents an enormous growth opportunity. The company will initially seek to monetize its technology through partnerships with life science companies, effectively making the platform available for use in their drug discovery programs; it will earn license fees and possibly drug royalties through such arrangements.

In the longer term, however, Maniscalco has bigger ambitions for the company. “We want to become the first quantum-powered biotech and do everything in-house,” she explains.

The quantum advantage isn’t just a matter of the increased computing power of quantum computers, she adds. The way these machines work is also more in line with the drug discovery process. Quantum computers operate at the level of quantum physics – in exactly the same way as the molecules to be explored in discovery. “The strength here is the ability to simulate other quantum systems,” explains Maniscalco.

That’s an important point, says Ivano Tavernelli, the world leader for advanced quantum simulation algorithms, at IBM Research. “Professor Maniscalco is a leader in the field and an expert at improving the performance of quantum hardware through her work to reduce the noise that plagues quantum systems,” he says. “We support Algorithmiq’s ambition and believe that the company’s work will be critical in paving the way for demonstrating quantum advantage with quantum algorithms in the near term.”

This is especially an exciting proposition for society, as the world’s population is looking for new treatments for complex diseases and conditions. Algorithmiq has already started talking to leading life sciences and pharmaceutical companies about possible applications of its technology.

The industry gets it, Maniscalco says. “Almost every pharmaceutical company is now developing an in-house team with quantum expertise so they can talk to people like us,” she says.