A Conversation with Chris Gibson, Co-Founder + CEO of Recursion
I sat down with Chris Gibson, Co-Founder and CEO of Recursion, off the heels of their recent IPO, to talk about his journey transforming the life science industry. As partners to Recursion since their Series B, I’m honored to share the vision of this exemplary founder, and our commitment to backing winners.
Alaa Halawa: Chris — what an incredible moment to be talking to you. Recursion recently made the transition to a publicly traded company. Before we get into what this means for you and the future of the company, can you tell me a bit about what motivated you to start Recursion?
Chris Gibson: I was working toward my MD/PhD under the guidance of Dr. Dean Y. Li at the University of Utah when we developed the foundation for Recursion by applying machine learning to microscopy images of human cells. The approach worked incredibly well (and quickly) in the context of a single disease. Given the roadblocks our industry faces, the prospect of substantially cutting down on cost, development time and human bias was too critical to not explore. So, we founded Recursion to evaluate whether we could evolve a similar process and approach to tackle many areas of human disease quickly and efficiently.
Thinking back, it was a challenging decision at the time because I was so close to completing the MD/PhD program and founding the company meant not completing my training as a physician, which was something I really valued. Ultimately, I made the decision by thinking through the impact I could have on the world in each path.
As a physician, I expected a high probability of having a meaningful impact on the few thousand patients I would treat in my career. On the other hand, starting Recursion seemed uncertain, but boasted the potential to impact tens or hundreds of millions of patients. That, plus the support structure I was blessed with that allowed me to make such a risky career move, encouraged me to take the leap!
Alaa Halawa: How would you describe your initial vision for Recursion, how it has shifted or accelerated and where it is today?
Chris Gibson: Initially we believed that our science would have the greatest utility in diseases defined by genetic mutations, and thanks to the genomic revolution in the early 2000s we have thousands of opportunities for impact in that space. As we tested the limits of our technology in subsequent years, we came to believe that we could address other areas of biology like inflammation and infectious disease. In some ways, that is an expansion of our vision, but there has not been much change beyond that at a fundamental level.
It has been amazing to have had exceptional partners like Mubadala since our early days that shared our vision for what we could create. Knowing that through ups and downs, as long as the fundamental mission is intact, you have support to build a company over decades. That’s as freeing a feeling as a founder or entrepreneur can have, and I really appreciate Mubadala and some of our other key stakeholders providing that to me.
Today, we’ve built one of the largest proprietary biological datasets in the industry and one of the largest preclinical and clinical pipelines in the space of technology-enabled drug discovery companies, thanks to the creation of our in-house tools, such as the Recursion Operating System and Data Universe that will allow our knowledge to compound on itself.
When we started out, we couldn’t envision all the tools we now have at our disposal, because the world moves fast.But the fundamental vision of adopting some of the most advanced computational and robotic tools and combining them with cutting-edge biological and chemical tools is true to our founding. We hope that with our applications of ML and addition of the BioHive-1, our recently-acquired supercomputer, we’ll be able to even further scale and replicate our approach broadly across biology.
Alaa Halawa: Did you ever expect Recursion would go public?
Chris Gibson: Yes, that always seemed like a likely step for us. We didn’t build the company to be acquired or for a short-term vision; we built it to take a big swing at an improbable, but important mission.
Going public is an opportunity to further develop our support network and resources that will increase our scope — allowing us to serve more patients. Everything we do — every decision, every new hire, every project, every goal — it’s always in service of the patients who need us and we are just getting started.
Alaa Halawa: Shifting gears a bit. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a lot of scientific and medical breakthroughs, and brought additional attention to the various ways technology is aiding drug discovery, patient care and delivery. Can you tell us a bit more about how Recursion leveraged AI/ML for drug discovery during this time?
Chris Gibson: The scientific community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was truly astounding and is an important reminder to everyone on earth about the value of science. We saw first-hand how the drug research and development process can be expedited with focus, motivation and the proper resources.
Our team at Recursion generated one of the largest image-based biological datasets ever publicly released over a period of 4 weeks in April 2020. This dataset, which we named RxRx19, was focused on understanding some of the early and fundamental classes of medicines that might be critical to fight COVID-19. The dataset included over 300,000 images of human cells infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and was released publicly and freely as part of our effort to help.
To date, of molecules that we tested in our experiments and subsequently evaluated in randomized controlled trials in humans, our predictions about the utility of these medicines released back in April 2020 have been accurate 7 out of 8 times. If even one team somewhere in the world was able to leverage our dataset to arrive more quickly at the right answer about their drug’s effect on COVID-19, that makes our work worthwhile.
Alaa Halawa: Few people know this, but you are more than just a founder for Recursion. You are deeply passionate about supporting founders with untraditional backgrounds, and built Altitude Lab to support diverse founders building life science companies. Tell us a bit more about this initiative, and your goal for life science founders and the greater Utah region.
Chris Gibson: Finding space and mentorship were very challenging in the early years of Recursion, and I had every form of privilege possible. It was my hope that when we had the right resources, we would help ease some of those struggles for other promising teams working hard to build the future, and especially for those who didn’t have all of the same privileges I did as a white, male founder with a great network.
When we moved into our current headquarters, we saw the opportunity to repurpose our old office and laboratory space as an incubator (Altitude Lab) to support startup founders in the life science space — especially founders with less traditional backgrounds. We want to do our part in building a foundation for a vibrant life sciences community in Utah and beyond. Watching some of the founders in Altitude Lab now as they work towards their vision is one of the greatest joys and inspirations of my career so far. I’m very thankful to long-term, forward-thinking investors like Mubadala who gave our team the freedom to invest real time, money and effort in this work. They understand how important the success of our community will be, not only to support Recursion’s successful growth, but for the fundamental value that comes with doing good in the world.
Altitude Lab provides both technological resources and professional guidance to those without access to the critical networks necessary to get an idea off the ground. Historically, diverse groups have not had equal access to quality healthcare options. By investing in underrepresented founders who better understand the next generation’s needs, we invest in the diverse communities our startups serve.
Alaa Halawa: What advice do you have for life science founders who are building their businesses today? And, on the flip side, what advice do you have for investors who are looking to back the next Recursion?
Chris Gibson: For the founders, I’d say that if you have an idea that you just can’t shake off or can’t stop thinking about, and especially if that idea could improve our world, you should think seriously about trying to build a company. The journey is hard and you will need to build support along the way in the form of mentors, teammates and partners, and in your community, but keep your eyes on the prize and think about those you can impact. If you are lucky enough to build something successful, don’t forget that struggle, and commit to finding a way to lessen the barriers to success for the next generation of founders.
To the investors, I’d simply ask them to be bold. We were a founding team without much industry exposure (two of the three of us were graduate students!). Early investors diligenced us and the science deeply. They asked extraordinarily hard questions about not only our technology but also our team. That was good for us. Ultimately, though, those who came in early were not blinded by our unique beginnings, our location in Utah or anything else. They saw those as potential risks, but they saw a team ready to pour its heart and soul into a problem that needed solving, and early technical and scientific proof of potential. Thank you to those who were bold when others stuck to the more well-trodden path.
Alaa Halawa: Chris, thank you so much. It’s been a true honor to be by your side for all these years, and we are so grateful for all the work you do, and proud of all you are yet to accomplish.
*Transcript edited for clarity.