How Recursion Hopes to Harness the Big Picture View to Understand Biology’s Landscape

January 24, 2023

By Allison Proffitt 

January 24, 2023 | After ten years of working on a specific disease, Chris Gibson’s graduate school lab tested their treatment theory on an animal model. It not only didn’t work, it actually made the animals worse.  

“That was a really formative moment for me. It’s the humbling of biology,” Gibson told Stan Gloss in the latest episode of Bio-IT World’s Trends from the Trenches podcast.  

At the time, Gibson was in an MD/PhD program, and the experience prompted him to look into how other tools and techniques could be brought to bear on biological programs. He felt sure there was another way. And so he quit medical school to co-found Recursion Pharmaceuticals where he is now CEO. 

Recursion’s “big, hairy, audacious goal”—to borrow language from Jim Collins’ book Built to Last—is to decode biology to radically improve lives, Gibson said. That includes understanding how every gene interacts with every other gene, every protein product with every other protein. We want to get away from looking at biology under a microscope, he jokes. While he’s not completely serious about tossing the microscope, Gibson does favor a big picture view and wants to push biology away from “uni-dimensional readouts” from single assays and experiments.  

Recursion’s strategy is to set goals that are big enough that the existing tools and techniques simply won’t suffice.  

“If you set goals that are easily achieved, you default to using tools that have been used in the past. The only way you can force yourself to use new tools is if you set goals that are very hard to achieve if not seemingly impossible. Trying to strive for those kinds of goals—even if you fall short—increases the probability that you’re going to take some risks to try things in a totally different way,” Gibson said. “That’s been really important to the founding of the company and the way we’ve built the business. We fail all the time, but I hope we’ve created a culture where that’s part of the process to getting to something that looks like success in the end.”  

At Recursion, that means using ’omics technologies, measuring everything (Gibson says there are regularly ten times more controls on Recursion experiments than in traditional experimental design), conducting experiments in the company’s own highly automated wet lab with robots, and then using machine learning to sift through all of that data to understand biology as a complete system. “We have to learn not only about the question we’re asking today, but we want to set ourselves up to ask a million more questions in the future,” he explained.  

“We call it mapping and navigating,” Gibson explained. “Rather than head off into the wilderness of biology and saying I’m going to figure out how to get to some point using only what I can see around me, we spend an incredible amount of effort up front to go map all of the wilderness of biology—as much as we can.”  

A big part of the Recursion secret sauce, Gibson said, was the culture the company has been able to create—along with their own in-house lingo including Recursionaut (someone who works at Recursion), One Recursion (optimizing effort for the whole, not individual groups or business units), and the Recursion OS, which Gibson says includes all of the people, processes, and tools that comprise Recursion. (Read Gloss’s earlier conversation with Mason Victors, Recursion’s Chief Product Officer for more on these company mottos.)  

This sort of culture-first approach is not unique to Recursion, Gibson said, but he does believe that fostering such a culture helps build a company with more agility, perhaps, than some of the much larger, older pharmaceutical giants. Gibson rejects territorialism and believes letting go of that sort of thinking will be critical to successfully reimagining the entire drug discovery process.  

“Companies that will be most successful in really rethinking this space won’t have this ‘invented here’ mindset that they have to do everything themselves,” he said. “They’ll actually partner to try and bring all of the best ideas together into one process, one stack. I hope that’s the kind of philosophy that take at Recursion.”