Nicole Junkermann is an international entrepreneur and investor, and the founder of NJF Holdings, an international investment company with interests in venture capital, private equity, and real estate. Through NJF’s venture capital arm, the company oversees a portfolio of over 30 start-ups across three continents, including in the healthcare sector.
The importance of investing in healthcare
The COVID-19 global pandemic is having a devastating impact on the world as we know it.
I think that all too often that as humans we take our health for granted, and it is only when our health starts to fail us, that we truly appreciate how precious this is. The present crisis has certainly made people of all ages and backgrounds take stark notice of just how dependent we are on advancements in healthcare and societies across the world can understand why we cannot compromise on investing in the latest research and developments in this sector.
I was very early in investing in both the healthcare and biotech sectors, particularly focusing on early-stage companies looking to utilise the latest advancements in technology – such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning – to make much-needed breakthroughs in their fields. I have always looked to support bright entrepreneurs with the potential to tackle some of the society’s greatest challenges, and for me, healthcare has always been a clear priority.
I have been fortunate to not only see the benefits of investing in and supporting many fantastic early-stage companies which are making a real difference, but also to work alongside and learn from many leading scientists who are at the forefront of research in their fields.
One of these companies in my portfolio is Paris-based OWKIN, which harnesses the power of AI for medical research. I am proud to be a director of the company and am delighted to be part of OWKIN’s exciting journey.
OWKIN has a singular but powerful mission; to use machine learning, integrated with system biology, to develop faster, safer, and more effective medicines and treatments for patients.
The Company has created a unique research platform and portfolio of AI models and Biomarkers designed to empower researchers in hospitals, universities, and pharmaceutical companies to:
- understand why drug efficacy varies from patient to patient;
- enhance the drug development process; and
- identify the best drug for the right patient to improve treatment outcomes.
OWKIN was founded in 2016 by Thomas Clozel, a clinical research doctor and former assistant professor in clinical haematology, and Gilles Wainrib, PhD, a pioneer in the field of AI in biology, and has now raised more than US$30m. I am proud to have invested alongside leading investors from across global VC community, including GV (formerly Google Ventures), FPRIME, FRST, and Cathay Innovation to name just a few.
By connecting medical researchers with high-quality datasets from leading academic research centers around the world, the OWKIN platform is currently supporting several of the largest cancer centers and pharmaceutical companies in Europe and in the US.
In the fight against cancer, one of OWKIN’s big breakthroughs came in 2019 when OWKIN made a major discovery in developing a model to predict and explain the key prognostic factors for Mesothelioma, a type of cancer that develops in the lining that covers the outer surface of some of the body's organs and is usually linked to asbestos exposure. OWKIN’s deep learning model was used to analyse the biopsies from nearly 3,000 mesothelioma patients, and, as CEO Thomas Clozel noted, this breakthrough research: “will ultimately lead to the development of more targeted drugs and better management of this terrible disease”.
The company has also recently launched the COVID-19 Open AI Consortium to bring breakthrough medical discoveries and actionable findings to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, while also on a practical level it moved quickly to leverage its supply chain to help provide thousands of masks to the French hospitals – including in the badly-hit regions of Mulhouse and Colmar – to support the fantastic medical professionals battling COVID-19 on the front line.