Merck, Amgen Invest in Akili as Therapeutic Video Game Moves Ahead

Xconomy Boston — 

Akili Interactive Labs, the Boston startup developing mobile video games that aim to assess and treat various cognitive disorders, today picked up more cash and endorsements from big pharma backers as the worlds of software and medicine continue to merge.

Akili announced it tacked on $11.9 million to its recent Series B funding round, bringing the round’s total to $42.4 million. The additional money comes from the venture capital arms of pharma giants Merck and Amgen—both new investors in Akili—along with previous backers, Akili says in a press release. Before the Series B, Akili had raised at least $7 million through venture capital, grants, and industry collaborations.

The deal strengthens Akili’s ties to the pharma industry and likely gives its experimental technology more credibility as it tries to become the first company to receive FDA approval to sell interactive electronic games as a medical device capable of diagnosing and treating a variety of cognitive disorders. Akili now has four relationships with large pharma companies or their investment arms; it previously struck a partnership with Pfizer and snagged an investment from Shire Pharmaceuticals.

Akili marks the first investment by Merck’s VC arm into a company that sits at the intersection of software and medicine, according to the press release.

“We believe digital medicine is the next frontier in healthcare, and we’re committed to helping bring digital into mainstream biopharma for a variety of patient and clinical needs,” Roel Bulthuis, the fund’s managing director, said in a prepared statement. “We see the medical segment within digital health growing rapidly, so we’re engaging with pioneering strategic partners like Akili to help advance this new category of medicine.”

Akili says it will use the new money to expand development of its clinical-stage products into new conditions, including a larger focus on neurodegenerative diseases. Akili says it’s already experimenting with applying its technology to Parkinson’s disease, major depressive disorder, multiple sclerosis, and other disorders. The idea is to use Akili’s software to better track the progression of the disease and potentially to help treat it in its early stages.

The funds will also help Akili build up its resources and capabilities for commercializing products. The company is currently conducting a key clinical trial of its lead product candidate, Project: Evo, geared toward treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. If the trial’s results are positive, Akili will seek FDA approval and perhaps begin selling the product by the end of 2017, the company has said.

A few months ago, I met with Akili co-founder and CEO Eddie Martucci and tested a demo version of its flagship product. Check out my takeaways here.

Akili’s technology is based on a decade of research by co-founder Adam Gazzaley’s group at the University of California, San Francisco. The startup was incubated by Boston-based PureTech Health.