Daphne Koller has one of the most illustrious academic and corporate back stories around: She became a professor at Stanford (she says matter-of-factly, like it’s a common job), but later moved out into the corporate world and has been making waves in machine learning ever since.
Her latest venture is Insitro, which she founded two years ago; before that, she worked out of Alphabet's supersecretive Calico Labs for around two years as its top artificial intelligence researcher. She joined the company from Coursera, the education tech outfit she founded back in 2012.
Insitro is now her focus, and it came into life with a simple goal: improving drug R&D. There are lots of theories on how this can be done, but at her new company, she plans to enlist data and machines to address shortcomings in drug discovery and development, which can create long lead times, delays to patients, and high drug prices. Knocking all this down is the holy grail in life sciences today.
On paper, Insitro is well-placed to push machine learning-enabled drug R&D to its limits. But, in contrast to some others in the space, Koller is quick to acknowledge that machine learning (ML) won’t provide a quick fix for all of drug development’s problems or magic ideas for breakthrough drugs out of data alone. She does, however, think the technology is mature enough and the data sets big enough for ML to start making a dent in some thorny challenges.
Computer science and math were her majors in college and her main focus. Funnily enough, for someone now leading a company focused on medical research, she "hated biology when I was at school, because it seemed to be built on a list of details but without a pattern to it, so my focus early on was on the exact sciences [which is all about absolute precision].”
Her interest in biology grew out of her Ph.D. work and beyond, as it became a “quantitative discipline,” especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the mapping of the human genome. “I began to get past my dislike of biology as a discipline and really began to get interested in it, in its own right, and the excitement of uncovering things that are relevant to human health,” she said.
Being a Stanford professor is clearly a major and often lifelong career, but Koller said she began to feel “more of a sense of urgency around what has more relevance to humanity than just writing papers. I wanted to have the opportunity to do more, and that’s what motivated me to make an unexpected career move: to leave Stanford to found Coursera in 2012.”
This was an inspiring period for Koller. “We could have a real impact on the lives of real people,” she said. That idea later led her to Calico and ultimately to Insitro, where as founder and chief, she feels she can help make a major difference to the world and human health.
Koller clearly made her way not only through the ranks but to the very top both in academia and in the corporate world. But how easy is it for girls in school today to replicate that path?
“I think, and this is especially true when we get to the exact sciences, as well as in biology, math and computer science generally, including physics and a lot of the engineering disciplines, that girls are definitely a minority. I have two teenage girls myself, and I can clearly see how both of them are gradually being phased out, if you will, of sciences, even though both of them love science. But somehow, they are gravitating toward other disciplines.
“I wish I had a silver bullet for this situation: A lot of people have tried a lot of interventions, but I don’t think any of them have been particularly successful. But what I think does help, and what I think can help attract more girls to science and math, is to really clarify how STEM disciplines really relate to challenges that we’re seeing as a society.”
She said a good example of this comes from Stanford. “When I look back to Stanford and when we transformed the undergraduate major that included areas which really spoke to societal challenges, the number of women who enrolled increased significantly.”