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Y Combinator-backed Andi taps AI to build a better search engine

It’s difficult to convince users to switch search engines. That’s one reason why public search service startups rarely succeed. Another is that it’s…

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It’s difficult to convince users to switch search engines. That’s one reason why public search service startups rarely succeed. Another is that it’s expensive to index a huge number of websites (Google has an estimated tens of billions of pages indexed), but one Y Combinator-backed company, Andi, is undeterred — forging ahead to build an AI assistant that provides answers instead of links when searching online.

Andi was founded by Angela Hoover, who registered for YC’s Startup School after dropping out of college and got into YC’s Winter 2022 Batch. After working overseas in construction and with Microsoft as a data center project administrator, Hoover met Andi’s co-founder, Jed White, at the Denver airport upon her return to the U.S.

Hoover and White — who had a background in AI and search, specifically content quality ranking, querying and classification — talked about how bad web search had become for things like travel and what it would take to build a new type of search engine from scratch.

“Gen-Z hates Google. To us, search is broken. We live on our phones in messaging apps with visual feeds like TikTok and Instagram,” Hoover told TechCrunch in an email interview. She’s not conjecturing — Google execs have admitted as much. “I hear my friends say constantly that Google sucks. Search results are overwhelmed with ads, SEO spam and clutter. Gen-Z is so desperate for an alternative that we’re using TikTok as a search engine. We hate the invasive creepy ads, and how Google is Big Brother and surveils everything.”

Image Credits: Andi

Hoover offers Andi’s AI-powered assistant as an alternative. The general-purpose system attempts to find and extract answers to questions, combining large language models akin to OpenAI’s GPT-3 with live web data.

Behind the scenes, Andi extracts information from web results ranked for relevance to the question being asked as well as overall quality (although it’s not clear how Andi defines “quality”). Depending on the subject matter, the platform uses different AI systems tailored for specific verticals (e.g. factual knowledge, programming or consumer health) and language models that generate answers by combining knowledge across multiple sources (e.g. Wolfram Alpha, Forbes, The New York Times, etc.).

It’s one step beyond Google’s featured snippets, which pull text from webpages to answer commonly asked questions, and closer to so-called “cognitive search” engines such as Amazon Kendra and Microsoft SharePoint Syntex that draw on knowledge bases to cobble together answers. Startups like Hebbia, Kagi and You.com also leverage AI to return specific content from the web in response to queries as opposed to straightforward lists of results.

So what sets Andi apart? Unlike some of its competitors, Hoover claims it doesn’t charge for its service nor record personally identifiable information. Andi also doesn’t log and store searches or the results people read or click on, only using coarse location data to improve the relevance of search results.

“Even when we add the option for user accounts in future, we will only collect and retain sufficient data to help our customers use the service effectively, when they want to create an account or be remembered between devices and sessions, and to improve the service we provide,” Hoover said. “Users tell us that Andi can save them 15 or 20 minutes searching, and have been asking us to let them use it with their own team and personal data … As we improve the question answering tech and add support to connect to private data sources, we think this has massive potential.”

Andi search

Image Credits: Andi

To filter out info that might be misleading — or patently untrue — Hoover says that Andi uses techniques including blocklists and ranking metrics. Misinformation is an evolving issue, of course — one Google itself has struggled with. But Hoover expressed confidence in the technical steps Andi has taken to mitigate the impact.

“Every other new search startup out there is making yet another weaker copy of Google with the same cluttered page of blue links targeted at a web browser, with more or less variation on ads and privacy practices,” she averred. “The content you see in [Andi’s] results is retrieved from the source live wherever possible, rather than from a stale index. The question answering is improving rapidly, and in many areas is already excellent.”

In a quick experiment, I fed a couple of controversial queries into Andi and found that the search engine handled them quite adeptly, consistently pointing to factual sources. A search for “Who really won the 2020 election?” yielded the answer “Joe Biden,” while the query “Are COVID-19 vaccines fake?” pulled an article from Forbes debunking pandemic conspiracy theories.

Andi is still very much in alpha and intends to stay lean while it iterates based on feedback from early users, Hoover says. The startup will have tough decisions to make. As a New Yorker notes, search algorithms are susceptible to various biases, for example only prioritizing websites that use modern web technologies. They also open the door to bad actors. In 2020, Pinterest took advantage of a quirk of Google’s image search algorithm to surface more of its content in Google Image searches.

As it wrestles with these issues, Andi’s team continues to suss out its business model. While the core service will remain free, Hoover says that Andi will eventually offer paid pro and business plans with premium features and API access, letting customers use Andi’s search and question-answering capabilities with paid content, personal data, and internal company and team data.

Andi search

Image Credits: Andi

Paid features are probably the right route to go, considering Google’s share of the global search market has held steady at more than 90% for most of the past decade. Bing trails with 3.4%, followed by Yahoo! (full disclosure: TechCrunch’s parent company) at 1.34%, according to Statcounter.

To fund the development of these features and potential partnerships with alternative search engines, Andi recently raised $2.5 million, which including backing from YC, Gaingels, GoodWater Capital, K20 Fund, Acacia Venture Capital Partners, Fepo Capital and BBQ Capital, as well as a small family and friends round.

“We’ve kept our burn rate low, working as digital nomads out of Mexico to extend our runway, and staying frugal. Even after we add AI developers and increase our model training costs, we have well over two years of runway,” Hoover said. “We’re using the funds to improve our proprietary generative AI for complex question answering, and the ‘search of vertical searches and APIs’ tech that Andi uses to combine large language models with live data, especially: AI model development and training, adding some more AI developers to our team and hosting and inference costs as we start to grow usage once we get closer to product market fit … At this early stage, we’re focused on making really great search that our users love, ahead of generating revenue.”

Andi doesn’t collect detailed metrics, but Hoover estimates that the search engine has around 5,000 users at present. Andi plans to add a full-time AI developer before the end of the year, which would bring its total headcount to three, including Hoover and White.

Y Combinator-backed Andi taps AI to build a better search engine by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

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Four burning questions about the future of the $16.5B Novo-Catalent deal

To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.
Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand…

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To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.

Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand its own production capacity for its weight loss drugs, the Danish drugmaker said Monday it will pay $11 billion to acquire three manufacturing plants from Catalent. It’s part of a broader $16.5 billion deal with Novo Holdings, the investment arm of the pharma’s parent group, which agreed to acquire the contract manufacturer and take it private.

It’s a big deal for all parties, with potential ripple effects across the biotech ecosystem. Here’s a look at some of the most pressing questions to watch after Monday’s announcement.

Why did Novo do this?

Novo Holdings isn’t the most obvious buyer for Catalent, particularly after last year’s on-and-off M&A interest from the serial acquirer Danaher. But the deal could benefit both Novo Holdings and Novo Nordisk.

Novo Nordisk’s biggest challenge has been simply making enough of the weight loss drug Wegovy and diabetes therapy Ozempic. On last week’s earnings call, Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said the company isn’t constrained by capital in its efforts to boost manufacturing. Rather, the main challenge is the limited amount of capabilities out there, he said.

“Most pharmaceutical companies in the world would be shopping among the same manufacturers,” he said. “There’s not an unlimited amount of machinery and people to build it.”

While Novo was already one of Catalent’s major customers, the manufacturer has been hamstrung by its own balance sheet. With roughly $5 billion in debt on its books, it’s had to juggle paying down debt with sufficiently investing in its facilities. That’s been particularly challenging in keeping pace with soaring demand for GLP-1 drugs.

Novo, on the other hand, has the balance sheet to funnel as much money as needed into the plants in Italy, Belgium, and Indiana. It’s also struggled to make enough of its popular GLP-1 drugs to meet their soaring demand, with documented shortages of both Ozempic and Wegovy.

The impact won’t be immediate. The parties expect the deal to close near the end of 2024. Novo Nordisk said it expects the three new sites to “gradually increase Novo Nordisk’s filling capacity from 2026 and onwards.”

As for the rest of Catalent — nearly 50 other sites employing thousands of workers — Novo Holdings will take control. The group previously acquired Altasciences in 2021 and Ritedose in 2022, so the Catalent deal builds on a core investing interest in biopharma services, Novo Holdings CEO Kasim Kutay told Endpoints News.

Kasim Kutay

When asked about possible site closures or layoffs, Kutay said the team hasn’t thought about that.

“That’s not our track record. Our track record is to invest in quality businesses and help them grow,” he said. “There’s always stuff to do with any asset you own, but we haven’t bought this company to do some of the stuff you’re talking about.”

What does it mean for Catalent’s customers? 

Until the deal closes, Catalent will operate as a standalone business. After it closes, Novo Nordisk said it will honor its customer obligations at the three sites, a spokesperson said. But they didn’t answer a question about what happens when those contracts expire.

The wrinkle is the long-term future of the three plants that Novo Nordisk is paying for. Those sites don’t exclusively pump out Wegovy, but that could be the logical long-term aim for the Danish drugmaker.

The ideal scenario is that pricing and timelines remain the same for customers, said Nicole Paulk, CEO of the gene therapy startup Siren Biotechnology.

Nicole Paulk

“The name of the group that you’re going to send your check to is now going to be Novo Holdings instead of Catalent, but otherwise everything remains the same,” Paulk told Endpoints. “That’s the best-case scenario.”

In a worst case, Paulk said she feared the new owners could wind up closing sites or laying off Catalent groups. That could create some uncertainty for customers looking for a long-term manufacturing partner.

Are shareholders and regulators happy? 

The pandemic was a wild ride for Catalent’s stock, with shares surging from about $40 to $140 and then crashing back to earth. The $63.50 share price for the takeover is a happy ending depending on the investor.

On that point, the investing giant Elliott Investment Management is satisfied. Marc Steinberg, a partner at Elliott, called the agreement “an outstanding outcome” that “clearly maximizes value for Catalent stockholders” in a statement.

Elliott helped kick off a strategic review last August that culminated in the sale agreement. Compared to Catalent’s stock price before that review started, the deal pays a nearly 40% premium.

Alessandro Maselli

But this is hardly a victory lap for CEO Alessandro Maselli, who took over in July 2022 when Catalent’s stock price was north of $100. Novo’s takeover is a tacit acknowledgment that Maselli could never fully right the ship, as operational problems plagued the company throughout 2023 while it was limited by its debt.

Additional regulatory filings in the next few weeks could give insight into just how competitive the sale process was. William Blair analysts said they don’t expect a competing bidder “given the organic investments already being pursued at other leading CDMOs and the breadth and scale of Catalent’s operations.”

The Blair analysts also noted the companies likely “expect to spend some time educating relevant government agencies” about the deal, given the lengthy closing timeline. Given Novo Nordisk’s ascent — it’s now one of Europe’s most valuable companies — paired with the limited number of large contract manufacturers, antitrust regulators could be interested in taking a close look.

Are Catalent’s problems finally a thing of the past?

Catalent ran into a mix of financial and operational problems over the past year that played no small part in attracting the interest of an activist like Elliott.

Now with a deal in place, how quickly can Novo rectify those problems? Some of the challenges were driven by the demands of being a publicly traded company, like failing to meet investors’ revenue expectations or even filing earnings reports on time.

But Catalent also struggled with its business at times, with a range of manufacturing delays, inspection reports and occasionally writing down acquisitions that didn’t pan out. Novo’s deep pockets will go a long way to a turnaround, but only the future will tell if all these issues are fixed.

Kutay said his team is excited by the opportunity and was satisfied with the due diligence it did on the company.

“We believe we’re buying a strong company with a good management team and good prospects,” Kutay said. “If that wasn’t the case, I don’t think we’d be here.”

Amber Tong and Reynald Castañeda contributed reporting.

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Petrina Kamya, Ph.D., Head of AI Platforms at Insilico Medicine, presents at BIO CEO & Investor Conference

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb….

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Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

Credit: Insilico Medicine

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

The session will look at how the latest artificial intelligence (AI) tools – including generative AI and large language models – are currently being used to advance the discovery and design of new drugs, and which technologies are still in development. 

The BIO CEO & Investor Conference brings together over 1,000 attendees and more than 700 companies across industry and institutional investment to discuss the future investment landscape of biotechnology. Sessions focus on topics such as therapeutic advancements, market outlook, and policy priorities.

Insilico Medicine is a leading, clinical stage AI-driven drug discovery company that has raised over $400m in investments since it was founded in 2014. Dr. Kamya leads the development of the Company’s end-to-end generative AI platform, Pharma.AI from Insilico’s AI R&D Center in Montreal. Using modern machine learning techniques in the context of chemistry and biology, the platform has driven the discovery and design of 30+ new therapies, with five in clinical stages – for cancer, fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and COVID-19. The Company’s lead drug, for the chronic, rare lung condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, is the first AI-designed drug for an AI-discovered target to reach Phase II clinical trials with patients. Nine of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies have used Insilico’s AI platform to advance their programs, and the Company has a number of major strategic licensing deals around its AI-designed therapeutic assets, including with Sanofi, Exelixis and Menarini. 

 

About Insilico Medicine

Insilico Medicine, a global clinical stage biotechnology company powered by generative AI, is connecting biology, chemistry, and clinical trials analysis using next-generation AI systems. The company has developed AI platforms that utilize deep generative models, reinforcement learning, transformers, and other modern machine learning techniques for novel target discovery and the generation of novel molecular structures with desired properties. Insilico Medicine is developing breakthrough solutions to discover and develop innovative drugs for cancer, fibrosis, immunity, central nervous system diseases, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and aging-related diseases. www.insilico.com 


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Another country is getting ready to launch a visa for digital nomads

Early reports are saying Japan will soon have a digital nomad visa for high-earning foreigners.

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Over the last decade, the explosion of remote work that came as a result of improved technology and the pandemic has allowed an increasing number of people to become digital nomads. 

When looked at more broadly as anyone not required to come into a fixed office but instead moves between different locations such as the home and the coffee shop, the latest estimate shows that there were more than 35 million such workers in the world by the end of 2023 while over half of those come from the United States.

Related: There is a new list of cities that are best for digital nomads

While remote work has also allowed many to move to cheaper places and travel around the world while still bringing in income, working outside of one's home country requires either dual citizenship or work authorization — the global shift toward remote work has pushed many countries to launch specific digital nomad visas to boost their economies and bring in new residents.

Japan is a very popular destination for U.S. tourists. 

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This popular vacation destination will soon have a nomad visa

Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Latvia and Malta are some of the countries currently offering specific visas for foreigners who want to live there while bringing in income from abroad.

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With the exception of a few, Asian countries generally have stricter immigration laws and were much slower to launch these types of visas that some of the countries with weaker economies had as far back as 2015. As first reported by the Japan Times, the country's Immigration Services Agency ended up making the leap toward a visa for those who can earn more than ¥10 million ($68,300 USD) with income from another country.

The Japanese government has not yet worked out the specifics of how long the visa will be valid for or how much it will cost — public comment on the proposal is being accepted throughout next week. 

That said, early reports say the visa will be shorter than the typical digital nomad option that allows foreigners to live in a country for several years. The visa will reportedly be valid for six months or slightly longer but still no more than a year — along with the ability to work, this allows some to stay beyond the 90-day tourist period typically afforded to those from countries with visa-free agreements.

'Not be given a residence card of residence certificate'

While one will be able to reapply for the visa after the time runs out, this can only be done by exiting the country and being away for six months before coming back again — becoming a permanent resident on the pathway to citizenship is an entirely different process with much more strict requirements.

"Those living in Japan with the digital nomad visa will not be given a residence card or a residence certificate, which provide access to certain government benefits," reports the news outlet. "The visa cannot be renewed and must be reapplied for, with this only possible six months after leaving the countr

The visa will reportedly start in March and also allow holders to bring their spouses and families with them. To start using the visa, holders will also need to purchase private health insurance from their home country while taxes on any money one earns will also need to be paid through one's home country.

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