Qulab: Bringing big pharma and Quantum together

In a TED talk at UCLA in 2016, Alireza Shabani tells a story about falling in love with physics. At the age of ten, his sister found him reading a story book. Unimpressed, she told him that it was time to start reading about science instead, and dragged him to a bookshop where she bought him a weighty tome about atoms. This went down better than you might expect, and a lifelong fascination with physics was born. 

I ask Shabani about this story and he laughs. It is, he tells me, all true. Attending school in his native Iran, Shabani began reading more and more, even making brave attempts at university textbooks - though he admits he didn’t understand much of what was in them.

“But that was when my interest was formed,” he recalls. “My whole career was formed from that passion.”

Now the founder and CEO of Qulab, a Los Angeles-based tech company with the goal of boosting chemical and pharmaceutical research and development via new computing technologies, the journey from middle school in Iran was difficult. At college, Shabani tells me, he decided to go abroad to study for a doctorate in quantum computing after taking a course in this subject. At the time, quantum computing was so new as a branch of physics that there was not even a single book on the subject. Instead, his undergraduate professor used lecture notes written by current Richard P. Feynmann Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, John Preskill, that were available to download online.

After completing his undergraduate degree, Shabani applied for grad school in the US in 2002. But here, again, there was a problem:

“I applied for grad school in North America, but I couldn’t get a visa to come to the US,” he says. “It was 2002, the year after September 11th. They put more restrictions in place. So I went to Canada instead.”

Finally, after finishing a Master’s course in Physics at the University of Toronto, Shabani’s supervisor invited him to join him on a move to the States. It was a roundabout journey that ended in Shabani completing a PhD in the dynamics and control of quantum systems at the University of Southern California, working as a postdoc at both Princeton and Berkeley, and finally ending up with a job in Google’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab.

But in 2016, he left, leaping from one of the world’s leading quantum research labs into a new, private venture of his own: Qulab.

“I had built a vision for a big company,” he says, chuckling. “The whole method of scientific discovery in chemistry and to some extent in biology is undergoing a transformation, by leveraging advanced computing: AI, machine learning, quantum computing… My mission became to turn these new scientific advances into modernisation for the industry. It could be chemicals, pharmaceuticals, materials - all industries that deal with matter, they will be impacted by quantum technology. I founded Qulab when I decided to focus on pharmaceuticals.”

Qulab isn’t strictly a quantum computing company. Rather, its premiere product, ‘Quleap’, is a modular software platform into which quantum will eventually be folded. Its purpose is drug design - or rather, to do the intensive R&D that drug design requires, more quickly. You can design new molecules for new therapeutics with classical computers - but according the Shabani, those are approaching the limits of practicality.

Drug discovery is very costly and has a high rate of failure,” he explains. “It takes time to develop drugs. When chemists design a molecule, and test it in the lab, there is a lot of trial and error, which is of course very expensive… That’s why it’s become harder for the pharmaceutical industry to keep pipelines growing. 

“There are two technologies that will transform the pharmaceutical industry. One is the new wave of computing technology and the second is robotics and automation. The computational part is our current focus at Qulab. With drug design, you want to be able to accurately simulate biological and biochemical system; to simulate a bunch of molecules on the computer. And if you can more accurately mimic that system on a computer, of course you have a better chance of finding the right design. Quantum computers will make that design more accurate.”

Shabani is reluctant to share much information on the company’s current projects. He does tell me that two of them are focused on oncology, while another involves using AI in molecular design. But the broader point, he says, is that specific projects aren’t what matters when considering the impact quantum computing will have on the pharmaceutical industry.

“It’s not a solution for a specific disease,” he says. “It’s going to be a one-time, serious impact for all diseases. The platform we’re developing is dual-purpose; it’s not designed for a particular target.”

R&D costs in the pharmaceutical industry are a big part of the justification pharma companies employ to explain expensive medicines and drug patents. To take them at their word, the logical result of reduced R&D costs would be both cheaper drugs and an incentive to create more novel treatments. Quantum computing is often touted as one of the pivotal near-future technologies that could usher in this new age of expanded and more affordable care, but Shabani is wary of the hype. Quantum computing is not a simple panacea, and it’s still unclear which - if any - of the different prototype architectures will be reliably available to companies like Qulab any time soon.

“There’s a lot of hype around the subject of quantum computing. There are a lot of misunderstandings and misinformation. But on our side, we do our best to educate both our investors and our partners about the potential… For the sort of tasks that are relevant to our business we need a machine with about 300 to 1000 qubits. That’s the size where we can start doing our first quantum experiments. It’s hard to put a timeline to that; it’s a complicated technology. There are three different technologies that different groups are working on: superconducting circuits, photonics and trapped ions. All of them have their own different challenges in terms of scalability. It’s a technology in development and we’re still at the experimentation stage.”

The upside of this situation is the driving force of the big pharma companies. Pharmaceutical giants want quantum computing and the drug design platforms that run on them to work, with the result that companies like Qulab can enjoy a degree of relative job security. So long as your science is good, Shabani says, big pharma will be there to work with you.

“It’s kind of a collaborative industry,” he says. “We are already working with pharma companies who leverage our platform. Big pharma likes working with smaller companies like us… We perform our tests, and then the bigger companies buy the license from us. They support and invest in the smaller companies… They are seeking and encouraging new technologies. 

“That’s the core of the whole industry. It might be the only industry I know where your business is successful if the science that you’re doing is good. The better your science, the better you do. There’s not an emphasis on marketing this or that product - you need to find a drug that you can show cures patients. When you show that, the market is always there.”

For questions or feedback on this article, please contact Amit Das: amit.das@alphaevents.com

To learn more visit: qulab.com