Flagship’s latest startup is betting that drugs derived from food, herbs, and supplements can treat chronic diseases

The next blockbuster treatments for chronic diseases may be hiding in plain sight, and with a little help from artificial intelligence, Montai Health wants to be the first biotech company to find them.

The Cambridge startup launched this week with $50 million to probe millions of molecules found in foods, herbal medicines, supplements, and other sources to identify compounds that can become building blocks for new drugs, with an initial focus on autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

About 60 percent of adults in the United States and more than 2 billion people worldwide have at least one chronic disease, which includes conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and immune conditions. There’s a need for therapies that are safe for long-term use, easy to take, and affordable, said Margo Georgiadis, the startup’s chief executive.

“We look at this chronic disease problem as this giant mountain in front of us, and we have to find new pathways up that mountain,” she said.

Montai, which means “climbing mountains with A.I.,” was founded in 2019 by Flagship Pioneering, the Cambridge firm that builds and funds its own biotech companies and is best known for launching the mRNA vaccine maker Moderna. After working for three years in stealth mode, Montai has emerged with its series A financing from Flagship and about 30 employees with backgrounds in inflammation biology, machine learning, and natural products chemistry.

“We believe that Montai unlocks the tremendous untapped potential to bring safer, more tolerable therapeutics to patients more quickly than ever before,” Noubar Afeyan, cofounder of Montai and chief executive of Flagship said in a statement.

Georgiadis was recently chief executive of the genealogy and DNA testing company Ancestry before joining Montai earlier this year. Prior to that, she led the toy company Mattel and was president of the Americas at Google. Although Georgiadis doesn’t have experience running a drug company, she’s convinced that her experience leading teams responsible for wrangling big data at Ancestry and Google makes her a good fit at Montai.

The startup is centered on a group of chemical compounds it calls “Anthromolecules,” which includes any molecule with a long history of being safely consumed by humans, and typically comes from animals, fungi, or plants. According to Montai’s count, scientists have cataloged 100,000 of these molecules,but that amounts to just one percent of the millions of molecules that people consume.

“We’ve always talked about food as medicine, but we’ve never understood at a molecular level how those molecules actually interface with our biological pathways,” Georgiadis said. The company hopes to change that.

“At Google, we organized the world’s information. [At Montai,] we’re organizing the world’s knowledge of Anthromolecules,” she said.

Exactly how Montai plans to acquire and use that knowledge is still a secret. Georgiadis outlined the company’s drug discovery process only in broad terms.

Montai is compiling data on Anthromolecules and what they do to cells at a molecular level and is mapping what goes wrong in those cells during disease, she explained. Its scientists are using artificial intelligence programs to identify molecules that can be turned into drugs to consistently prevent or treat disease.

The company might modify the compounds to make them better drugs. “In some cases, we may have to shine them up a little bit so that they work really well,” Georgiadis said.

The idea of looking to nature to find medicines is as old as the pharmaceutical industry itself. Aspirin was isolated from willow tree bark and antibiotics such as penicillin came from fungi. Recently, biotech companies have been taking another look at what nature has to offer. Colorado-based Enveda Biosciences raised $51 million last year to look for drugs from plants and Cambridge-based LifeMine Therapeutics raised $175 million earlier this year to find drugs from fungi.

For Montai, the focus on natural molecules is all about safety. Many drugs tested in clinical trials fail because they are unsafe, and even approved drugs can create problems when taken for many months or years. By focusing on molecules known to safely coexist in humans, Georgiadis believes Montai will have a jump-start on developing treatments for chronic diseases.

That hypothesis will take years to play out. The company isn’t disclosing a timeline for when it hopes to test its first treatments in clinical trials. But Georgiadis said that Montai will develop medicines that undergo far more thorough testing by scientists and vetting by regulators than off-the-shelf supplements.

“We’re a pharmaceutical company,” she said. “These will be FDA-approved therapeutics.”

Ryan Cross can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RLCscienceboss.