SALT LAKE CITY — Writers and filmmakers love to leverage the intersection of advanced robotics and artificial intelligence into dystopian outcomes for the blood-and-bones innovators behind the technology.
"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," "Ex Machina," "I, Robot" and, of course, the "Terminator" films, are just a few examples of a genre that portrays grim results for the human race on the backside of the moment when machines acquire the ability to think and make decisions.
But for Salt Lake City biotech startup Recursion Pharmaceuticals, melding robot-driven automation with digital artificial intelligence is creating an innovation path that could revolutionize how new drugs are developed to battle some of the rarest and most challenging of human medical conditions.
Now, the company is poised to make a quantum leap, so to speak, in its work to identify and develop drugs to treat rare genetic disorders with a new and expansive lab and office operation in the former Dick's Sporting Goods location at downtown's Gateway complex.
After outgrowing two previous facilities in the University of Utah Research Park, the company now has room to expand both its staff and research processes in the 100,000-plus square feet of the cathedral-like anchor space at the north end of Gateway, across from Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Recursion Chief Operating Officer Tina Larson said the new location is allowing the company to embrace a collaborative approach —with data scientists, computer programmers, biologists and chemists — to research and development efforts that have combined deep technology with the science that drives drug discovery.
"This space really creates a unique opportunity to bring together groups of people who don’t normally work together," Larson said. "There’s been a lot of thought put in to how we designed the space so that we can ... get those groups together to discover an unprecedented number of new treatments for patients."
Recursion was founded in 2013 and its innovative approach began is the core of doctoral research performed by company co-founder and CEO Chris Gibson at the University of Utah. The method relies on automating the once human-intensive process of peering through a microscope to assess if a chemical compound's impact on a diseased cell is having a positive impact or advancing it toward being a healthy cell.
Larson explained that Recursion has developed a technique to take a sample cell representing a genetic disorder and test it against the effects of hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds in a process that automates the visual evaluations and data gathering to allow for a lot of testing, in a very short period of time.
"We look at a disease we’re interested in against every chemical we can access," Larson said. "We have so much robotics we can run hundreds of thousands of experiments very quickly in a way that you can’t do with traditional biology."
The advanced automation identifies "hits" or impacts from particular chemical compounds on diseased cells that show promising results. Once identified, the Recursion team can hone in and pursue furthering the results through modifications to the compound.
In the rapidly advancing realm of biotech research and commercialization, Recursion has distinguished itself with a process and approach that's attracted tens of millions in investment dollars.
New York City and Menlo Park, California-based Lux Capital participated in a $60 million round of funding for Recursion last fall. Zavain Dar, a principal with Lux, said a former Stanford graduate school classmate of his put the company on Lux's radar in 2016 and when he looked into it, was "wildly impressed" with Recursion's approach.
"Their process is exceptionally intelligent," Dar said. "It removes human hubris and bias from the equation ... a factor that's plagued pre-clinical drug discovery research for decades now."
Dar noted the company's innovation is entirely new and taking advantage of automation, wet-lab and machine learning advances that have put Recursion years ahead of its competition and "gone well above and beyond what anyone thought was possible." Dar also believes the approach Recursion is developing could lead to compressing the time it takes to identify and bring a new drug to market from a decade-plus into the range of three to five years.
Recursion already has one drug that's earned FDA approval for clinical trials and, according to Larson, is set to accelerate its pace of advancement thanks to the added capacity of the new facility. The company is in a hiring cycle and looking to build its current ranks of about 100 employees to a staff of 300. It's also geared up to triple its research-processing volume, which was edging past 100,000 cellular experiments a week in the Research Park location. Now, with the additional lab space, Recursion could be hitting 300,000 experiments per week and there's still room for growth.
The new Gateway location is not only providing Recursion with much-needed physical space to grow its work volume, but the company believes the space will also provide a powerful enticement in its efforts to recruit new talent.
The company opted to keep one vestige of the old sporting goods tenant, a three-story climbing wall, and has added additional perks as well. Those include an in-house chef that prepares free, healthy gourmet lunches for the staff each day, and a variety of spaces like a yoga room and lounge that provide for decompression opportunities amid the rigors of scientific discovery, according to the company.
Ahead of a Friday grand opening for the new Recursion space, Jenny Cushing, vice president of leasing for Gateway owner Vestar, said the research company's transformation of a well-known former retail space fits in with the goal of cultivating new options at Gateway for tech companies interested in downtown Salt Lake City.
“We are excited to add Recursion Pharmaceuticals, a pioneer in transforming pharmaceutical discovery and development, to The Gateway this week,” said Cushing. “The Gateway has positioned itself as the urban extension of 'Silicon Slopes' by creating unique tech spaces that offer downtown amenities that help attract a solid workforce - entertainment, restaurants, residential, retail and mass transit with both TRAX and FrontRunner stops.
"We have new spaces coming online for the tech sector with large, open floor plans of more than 50,000 square feet of contiguous space and anticipate announcing new co-working spaces opening soon.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the person through whom Zavain Dar first heard about Recursion Pharmaceuticals. It was via a friend in the Stanford computer science graduate program, not the Stanford Business School.