UC San Diego, one of California’s most prestigious universities for science, sits on the cliffs of La Jolla, gazing upon the Pacific Ocean and the evening sunset. The nearly 2,000 acres of land hosts thousands of students from around the world who gather in classrooms to learn and innovate.
But the story of Nanome — the start-up that’s revolutionizing pharmaceutical research — doesn’t start in a classroom. Nor does it start on those beautiful cliffs by the shore. It starts on a rugby field.
Co-founder and CTO Sam Hessenauer recalls, “I actually ended up meeting Steve McCloskey, our CEO, when I played rugby with him at the school. We would have a lot of physics conversations on and off the field.”
McCloskey has the distinction of being among the first nano-engineering undergraduates in the university and, in turn, the world. Meanwhile, Hessenauer spent his college days studying software and electrical engineering, with a focus on machine learning.
Together, they discussed a new method of research for the pharmaceutical industry. One that uses virtual reality to its fullest potential. “We were very much aligned that there should be a ‘J.A.R.V.I.S.’ of some sort for molecules in spatial computing,” Hessenauer says.
J.A.R.V.I.S., for those who are not versed in the Marvel universe, is an AI created by Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) that makes hyper-fast computations and turns voice directions into 3D visuals right in front of his eyes. The duo wanted to bring that to fruition for scientists by using virtual reality to fully immerse them in a world of larger-than-life molecules.
This cinematic reference caught the attention of another person: Keita Funakawa.
Funakawa was known as a filmmaker on campus with a media and marketing background. In fact, he met McCloskey while curating content for a film festival.
“He ended up talking to me about molecules in VR and how it’s exactly like J.A.R.V.I.S. from Iron Man, and that’s really how it all started.” Funakawa says.
Funakawa would go on to become a co-founder and the company’s COO. And while pivoting from making films to developing technology for pharmaceutical research seems like a drastic change, this type of innovative thinking was exactly what his classes had prepared him for. According to Funakawa: “San Diego was really good at media theory and media technology — always thinking about the next medium and the next big thing.”
They also added a fourth co-founder, Edgardo Leija, who McCloskey met at a tech event at the San Diego Zoo. Leija is now Nanome’s Chief Experience Officer.
Once they developed their software, it didn’t take long for it to catch on around campus. In fact, it was being used before they even knew it. “We found out someone from the pharmacy school was using VR for molecular visualization because we went to a poster session and saw a photo of this student using a free open source version to look at molecules,” Funakawa remembers.
The team soon found the student and got to chat with him. “When he tried Nanome for the first time, he immediately pulled out his credit card and tried to pay for it,” laughs Funakawa.
While the team was surprised to see their product in action so quickly, they weren’t surprised to see there was a need for it. “We realized the need was already there well before that pharmacy student,” says Hessenauer. “Steve and I interviewed over 100 different people and from there it was clear that everyone wanted VR for molecular science. They all wanted this immersive display.”
The demand was so high that researchers and companies were spending millions of dollars just to get an inch closer to 3D objects. But none were able to fully scratch the itch.
The team’s lightbulb moment came while meeting with a crystallographer on campus to see how they constructed three-dimensional molecules. The process was a long and arduous one, requiring them to crystallize physical proteins, put them into an X-ray differentiation machine, and then scan them to get 3D blobs to appear on a 2D screen.
“He does this for eight hours a day, several days a week, just to get a protein salt. That’s ridiculous,” exclaimsHessenauer.
But virtual reality does more than accelerate the creation of these models. It makes them more accurate too, saving pharmaceutical researchers time and money. Funakawa shared an instance where scientists were misinterpreting the crystallography, believing there was more space on the left side of the protein. It wasn’t until they went into VR that they realized there was actually more space on the right.
He also told us about a case study they did with Meta, after a biofactor client caught a potential $100m+ mistake that would have derailed the drug discovery process for months. But it was all avoided thanks to their software.
“Those are the problems we’re trying to solve,” says Funakawa.
With that type of impact, it’s no wonder over half of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies are turning to Nanome to improve their processes.
The company got another big boost during the Covid-19 pandemic. With scientists isolating from one another, Nanome served as a valuable virtual collaboration tool when drug researchers needed it most. As Fukanawa says, that led to a featured slot at Meta Connect, “to show how scientists are doing vital drug discovery from their own homes.”
Hessenauer told us more about this remote digital collaboration, adding: “Our tools are natively collaborative. Any group can put on their headsets anywhere in the world and work as if they’re next to each other. They can hold things, point at elements, and design structures.”
There are still a lot of blockers when it comes to what scientists can do for humanity, largely because there is a lack of collaborative and natively 3D design at the atomic scale. But Hessenauer believes that will change soon, especially as artificial intelligence enters the fold.
“It's kind of a renaissance right now. We're going to see an impact on how we interact with systems in the future. For me, it’s human plus AI — because AI is going to be one of the bigger pushes for humanity, which will accelerate technology. I’m stoked to be here at the right time.” He said.
Thanks to Nanome, scientists are moving faster and understanding more than ever before, leading to better results in drug discovery and beyond. The effects are, and will continue to be, undeniable.
“I think the impact on humanity and the general public is going to be massive. There are drugs created with the help of our software that will help millions and millions of people,” says Hessenauer.
And it all started with a headset, a filmmaker, two guys on a rugby field, and a random encounter at the zoo.
Nanome’s use of virtual reality is an example of the potential tomorrow holds. From anywhere in the world, VR solutions can help solve a problem as intricate as three-dimensional modeling. To learn about how virtual reality could benefit you and your business, check out our VR meetings and collaboration work solutions page.