CSU chemical engineering alumna is president of one of nation’s top AI companies

Tina Larson, President and COO of Recursion, in the laboratory with Dan Berger and Briana Freshner.
In a 2019 photo, Tina Larson, President and COO of Recursion, works in the laboratory with Dan Berger and Briana Freshner.

Editor’s note: The Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering is occasionally featuring alumni who are helping to find solutions to challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis.

Like other biomedical companies around the globe, Salt Lake City-based Recursion jumped at the chance to help find solutions to the novel coronavirus.

This spring, the company tested more than 1,500 existing pharmaceuticals against human cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in vitro and shared the results with the scientific community, said Tina Larson, CSU chemical and biological engineering alumna who is Recursion’s president and COO.

The work was completed in 28 days, Larson said, because of the company’s unique use of artificial intelligence applied to disease models in human cells.

Forbes names Recursion top AI company

Recursion is a technology firm that is pioneering the application of machine learning and automation to understand biology and discover new medicines. It’s also on a steep trajectory in the business world: On July 3, Forbes named Recursion one of the top 50 “Most Promising Artificial Intelligence Companies.” Fast Company in 2019 listed Recursion as one of the “World’s Most Innovative Companies.”

With the coronavirus, Recursion infected human cells with the virus in 1536-well plates, applied potential treatments to the wells, then used images and mathematical formulas to identify which treatments had an effect on the cells. The published scientific results could help researchers determine which pharmaceuticals might be effective in treating COVID-19, Larson said.

Recursion works on dozens of diseases at any given time, including infectious diseases, so they were able to quickly jump into researching COVID-19.

“It’s an opportunity to show our technology can have an impact on disease,” Larson said. “We have a plan as a company to continuously pull together datasets relevant to research in human biology and release them to the broader community.

“We really wanted to contribute to the body of research,” she said. “It’s to all of our benefit for coronavirus to be addressed as swiftly as possible.”

Collaboration for the greater good

Tina Larson, recipient of 2019 University Distinguished Alumni Award
Larson was the recipient of 2019 University Distinguished Alumni Award.

Recursion is committed to free use of its research related to the treatment of COVID19, Larson said. The results have been made available to our colleagues in the scientific and drug development communities.

Recursion is unique because it can rapidly get a good disease model in human cells and try all sorts of different possible drug treatments.  They can check the accuracy of their findings using real world data from clinical trials, such as the data being generated for remdesevir to treat COVID-19.

“We generated a large dataset of very high-quality images and applied machine learning against that dataset,” she said. “True artificial intelligence uses really massive datasets. Our total data is greater than four petabytes or roughly the size of the Netflix movie library a few years back.”

Larson joined Recursion in 2018 after a long career with Genentech (acquired by Roche) where she moved up the ranks to Global Head of Technical Development Business Operations, overseeing business operations in Switzerland, Germany and the United States for an organization of 2,500 people. In 2016, she was recruited to Achaogen, a biopharmaceutical company that discovered and commercialized ZEMDRI for infectious disease, where she served as Senior Vice President of Technical Operations.

In 2019, CSU presented her with a Distinguished Alumni Award, Utah Business magazine named her one of “30 Women to Watch” and Utah’s Women Tech Council honored her with the Operational Excellence award. She is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board in CSU’s Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering.