“We want to be the go-to discovery engine for biotechs and pharmas that really care about getting the best molecules as quickly forward into the clinic,” AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen, PhD, told GEN Edge after the Canadian therapeutic antibody discovery company completed a $105 million Series B financing. “In order to address that market, we need the technologies that can solve the problems that are specific to each biological modality.”
“We believe that we are nowhere near the flattening of the curve on technology, and if we continue to invest in this, we can get orders of magnitude improvement in the quality, in the speed, and in the diversity of leads,” Hansen said. “Ultimately, by working with biotechs and pharmas, that’s going to mean better therapies, and more therapies, and faster therapies for patients.”
AbCellera said proceeds from the financing will go toward expanding its capacity and investing in technologies designed to complement and extend its proprietary antibody discovery engine. The company also plans to use proceeds toward additional investment in its technologies, staff, and facilities.
“We now are fully capitalized to execute on our plan,” declared Hansen, who co-authored over 65 manuscripts in microfluidics, immunology, genomics, and nanotechnology as a professor at University of British Columbia (UBC) until last year. “We’re taking a posture of aggressive growth, we’re adding facilities, hiring people. We’re going to be focusing on that for the near term. “
Over the next 12 months, Hansen said, AbCellera plans to add about 100 people to its workforce of 140. About a third of them are data scientists, machine learning scientists, and software engineers.
AbCellera sought a syndicate that included top technology investors like Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and former CEO who sold the company to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion, as well as firms long known for biopharma and healthcare investments such as OrbiMed.
OrbiMed, a new investor, joined Series A lead investor DCVC Bio to lead the Series B financing, with participation from a syndicate that included Theil as well as Viking Global Investors, Founders Fund, University of Minnesota, Presight Capital—and Eli Lilly.
COVID-19 and Beyond
Lilly and AbCellera are partnering on the discovery of antibodies for up to nine Lilly-selected therapeutic targets, through a multi-year strategic research collaboration and license agreement that was announced May 22, and whose value has not been disclosed. Lilly holds the rights to develop and commercialize therapeutic products resulting from the collaboration.
One of the nine targets is COVID-19, the focus of a collaboration disclosed in March.
“We’re just in conversation about getting the first two of the additional eight, in addition to COVID-19 going, but we don’t yet have clarity on what the other targets will be. That is a conversation that will be driven between our team and Lilly,” Hansen said.
Hansen said AbCellera was in talks with Lilly on the collaboration when COVID-19 emerged into a global pandemic. Building on relationships developed with some of Lilly’s senior leaders and business development groups, AbCellera was able to persuade the biopharma giant to join as an investor—and team up on vanquishing the virus.
The Lilly-AbCellera collaboration is one of more than 90 efforts that GEN is “Keeping an Eye On” among the more than 200 candidates listed in the recently-launched COVID-19 DRUG & VACCINE CANDIDATE TRACKER, a comprehensive collection of news, milestones and more timely updates on more than 200 drug and vaccine candidates currently being developed for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 is something that came, in terms of a conversation, after the conversation on financing and the multi-target agreement. But because it was so urgent, it’s the one that actually got closed and announced first,” Hansen said.
Within a week of receiving a blood sample from one of the first U.S. patients to recover from the virus, AbCellera identified more than 500 unique fully human antibody sequences, using a pandemic response platform developed over three years through its participation in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Pandemic Prevention Program, also called P3. AbCellera tapped into the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which found the antibodies with the greatest potential against COVID-19 based on their ability to bind SARS-CoV-2.
These most promising antibodies were studied further by Lilly and AbCellera after they launched their COVID-19 partnership.
“The most advanced antibody in this program shows potent neutralization of live virus, and has now entered GMP manufacturing,” Lilly’s Chief Scientific Officer Dan Skovronsky MD, PhD, told analysts in April during the conference call following release of Lilly’s first-quarter results.
First Patients Dosed
Today, AbCellera and Lilly said they have dosed the first patients in a clinical study of their antibody treatment, LY-CoV555. The first patients were dosed at major medical centers in the U.S., including NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
The trial comes just three months after just three months after AbCellera and NIAID began identifying potential antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. AbCellera and Lilly said LY-CoV555 was the first potential new antibody treatment specifically designed to attack the virus.
Under its partnership with Lilly, AbCellera is not barred from COVID-19 collaborations with other companies: “We have found the collaboration to be both enjoyable and productive in an unprecedented way. So as long as that continues, which we have full expectation that it would, we’re not looking for other partners.”
AbCellera typically works on partnered programs with 10-11 biopharma partners at any given time, according to Hansen. The company has completed more than 55 programs for various biopharmas and other partners—only a few of them disclosed—to discover antibody drug candidates for a variety of drug targets, including tough-to-drug, multi-pass membrane protein targets, such as GPCRs and ion channels. In addition to Lilly, AbCellera’s partners over the years have included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co., Novartis, Pfizer, and Sanofi’s Ablynx and Sanofi Pasteur vaccines units.
AbCellera’s antibody discovery platform and single-cell screening technology are designed to identify new first-in-class drugs and reduce the time needed to advance them to the clinic.
The platform can take immune cells from essentially any source with a natural immune system, and isolate the B cells that make antibodies with the therapeutic properties of interest. The cells are loaded into microfluidic devices, which comprise over 150,000 individual reaction chambers, each one of which has a closed volume of about 1 nanoliter. By bringing in technologies for immune repertoire sequencing, AbCellera says, it can look at the full diversity of antibodies that exist in a patient, or in an animal.
Through its $105 million Series B financing, AbCellera said, it plans to expand its capacity and invest in technologies that complement and extend its proprietary antibody discovery engine.
One key to that effort is building the company’s technology “stack” extending from antigen generation and immunization, through to protein engineering, and ultimately, to manufacturing to support biotech companies through to the end of Phase II.
GMP, R&D Facilities
To that end, AbCellera plans to build a GMP manufacturing facility for production of biologics for clinical testing—a process it estimates would probably take three to four years until the site is completed and operational. The size has not yet been finalized, but Hansen said he thinks it may be as large as 150,000 square feet, and perhaps not all of it solely focused on GMP manufacturing.
“The goal of that facility is to have a venue where we can continue to innovate along that part of the process, and support biotech companies that don’t have internal capabilities, all the way through to the end of Phase II,” Hansen said. “Right now, we’re looking at multiple sites. I’d say it’s probable that we will build this here in Vancouver, close to our research headquarters.”
At present, AbCellera is constructing a 48,000-square-foot R&D facility within a couple of blocks from its Vancouver headquarters, set to open next year.
Beyond facilities, AbCellera is also looking to build its computational prowess. The company has more than 50 software engineers and machine learning scientists specializing in organizing and extracting value from data to direct next steps in drug development.
“The technology that we’re building is focused on measuring, being able to search and analyze, and get information at data points on immune systems,” Hansen explained. “What we’re doing is building a technology company that addresses biotech, that recognizes that biology is a data science, and that immunology is probably a data science much more than any other part of this. It is so fantastically complex. It is the result of 300 million years of evolution, and nature’s solution to infection and disease.”
The third leg of AbCellera’s technology stool, Hansen continued, is engineering immune responses in vaccine or immunization, and being able to select, engineer, and design molecules that are more likely to advance into clinical phases faster. To facilitate that engineering, AbCellera plans to invest in technologies that include protein engineering—continuing efforts the company began a year and a half ago—as well as conjugates, and even modalities outside of antibodies.
AbCellera has applied its platform toward developing drugs in a variety of modalities that incorporate antibodies—including monoclonal antibodies; bi- and multi-specific antibodies; single domain antibodies, especially from camelid sources; bioconjugates that could include radioisotopes, small molecules or nucleic acids; gene-encoded antibodies; as well as cell therapies, where antibody binding motifs are critical.
The Vancouver, BC, company has raised approximately $116 million since Hansen and four-co-founders founded the company from a lab at UBC in 2012, starting with a friends-and-family financing round of approximately C$1 million (about $725,000) in 2014. AbCellera garnered $10 million in Series A financing in 2018, and completed the Series B round in May.
AbCellera started pursuing its just-completed $105 million Series B round, assembled the investor syndicate, and came to terms with investors months before COVID-19 disrupted biopharma and wreaked havoc on the world, Hansen said.
“Last fall, we made a decision that we needed to invest to build out capacity, and also to double down on the core strategy, which is in investing in technologies that can take out the pain points in bringing drugs from idea to the clinic,” Hansen recalled. “If we had gone out to start raising money in early March, I think it would have been nearly impossible, because it is important that you’re traveling around and meeting people in person. And given the disruption that has happened across all businesses, people were paying attention to existing portfolio companies, and how to deal with the current situation.”
“We certainly will probably look back on this and we will say, given that we closed it when we did, and really had it sewn up in March, just before things got really intense, that that will look like terrific timing,” Hansen said. “It’s great to be good. It’s even better to be lucky sometimes.”