AI and crystals: “We provide the blueprint for innovative drug design”

AI and crystals: “We provide the blueprint for innovative drug design”

The start-up CrystalsFirst specializes in structural biological analyses of protein crystals for drug development. Since 2022, the team has been based at DESY in Hamburg-Bahrenfeld. In this interview, founder and CEO Serghei Glinca discusses the technology and the structural biology ecosystem in northern Germany.

AI solutions like AlphaFold are revolutionizing 3D structural analysis of proteins. At CrystalsFirst, you focus on the elaborate production of protein crystals and X-ray crystallography – why is that?

Serghei Glinca: AlphaFold’s development is a remarkable story that has truly transformed structural biology. However, AI cannot predict how chemical molecule fragments bind to and interact with the surface of a protein. For this, experimental structural biology and crystallography remain essential for the preclinical development of drugs. Complex structural data are also indispensable for other drug discovery trends like “molecular glues” and “PROTACs”. It’s comparable to interior design: you need a spatial blueprint, a 3D model, to know where and how to arrange sofas and cabinets.

What is unique about your technology, and who are your clients?

CrystalsFirst particularly supports biotech companies in fragment-based drug discovery. We generate stable crystals for a drug target, a protein, and the bound fragments in the lab, then analyze these complexes using X-ray crystallography. This provides our clients with a 3D structure for further drug design. We use the data for our generative AI technology to optimize molecules with drug-like properties. Our clients are from the USA, South Korea, Japan, and Europe.

Why did you move your labs to the DESY campus?

CrystalsFirst’s origin is in Marburg, and we also have an operational site in the Life Science Factory in Göttingen. However, the structural biology ecosystem in Hamburg with EMBL, DESY, and CSSB is exceptional. When I saw it, I immediately felt: we belong here! Top-tier structural biology research happens here, and the Petra (P11) X-ray source is very close, making everything very efficient. Knowledge flow, access to talent, and proximity to the beamline—all of this is integrated here. Currently, we are based in the Innovation Village at DESY, with plans to move into the Start-up Labs and continue growing.

In this model, small molecules, so-called fragments (colored), which are found using SmartSoak technology from the Hamburg-based company CrystalsFirst, bind to a protein.
Small molecules, so-called fragments (colored), which are found using SmartSoak technology from the Hamburg-based company CrystalsFirst, bind to a protein. In this way, drug manufacturers gain valuable knowledge for the development of new drug molecules. © CrystalsFirst

How difficult is it to fill new positions?

Finding good people is relatively easy. There are many talented scientists at DESY, and others are looking to move out of academia. There’s a tremendous drive among those who join us because we have cutting-edge science and technology. Currently, we have nearly 20 employees, and we aim to keep growing.

How are you funded, and what role do partnerships play?

CrystalsFirst is generating revenue and is profitable. Before starting the company, we received support from the federal government through an EXIST start-up grant. In addition to funding from Hessen Kapital in 2018, we obtained support by the city of Hamburg for the relocation. In September 2023, a project with the Hamburg Investment and Development Bank (IFB) in collaboration with DESY was launched, which helped to develop our own generative AI technology for drug design. Our goal is to make the development of novel therapeutics from structure to lead drug candidate as efficient and rational as possible using data and AI.

What other trends do you observe in protein design?

Another trend is large AI language models that understand the language of proteins and can create entirely new molecules that do not occur in nature. Experimental methods are still needed to verify these designer proteins in the lab.

Interview: Philipp Graf

Featured image: © Serghei Glinca

In short

Serghei Glinca is a biotech entrepreneur with a PhD in molecular modeling and drug design. He is the founder and CEO of CrystalsFirst, which utilizes its patented MAGNET platform and generative AI to enable the design of novel therapeutics. He co-founded DEEP Ecosystems, a company focusing on innovation hubs, and a stealth biotech company aiming to defeat autoimmune diseases. Serghei also hosts the podcast “Founders in Biotech.“

More on this topic in the LSN Magazine:
AlphaFold2: How a revolutionary AI tool transformed protein science

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AI and crystals: “We provide the blueprint for innovative drug design”

Portrait AI and crystals: “We provide the blueprint for innovative drug design”

The start-up CrystalsFirst specializes in structural biological analyses of protein crystals for drug development. The team has been based at DESY in Hamburg-Bahrenfeld since 2022. In this interview, founder and CEO Serghei Glinca talks about the technology and the structural biology ecosystem in the North of Germany.