Tillman Gerngross is wont to say that the antibody-drug discovery technology his biotech startup, Adimab, is developing is a game-changer. Now it looks like two of the largest drug companies in the world might agree—Lebanon, NH-based Adimab plans to announce today that Merck & Co. and Roche have signed on as its first research collaborators.
Merck (NYSE:MRK), based in Whitehouse Station, NJ, has tasked Adimab with using its proprietary yeast-based discovery technology to identify human antibodies for undisclosed disease targets of Merck’s choosing. Gerngross, the startup’s CEO and co-founder, says that Merck doesn’t get to use the discovery technology itself. The arrangement with Swiss drug giant Roche will work the same way, yet the key difference is that it is focused on just one undisclosed drug target. Both deals provide Adimab with upfront payments and licensing fees, as well as potential fees for achieving pre-clinical milestones. The drug companies also have the option to commercialize antibodies discovered as part of their collaborations with Adimab, making the startup eligible for additional payments. Exact financial terms weren’t disclosed.
These deals provide some commercial validation for Adimab’s technology, which Gerngross has been touting as a completely original process for discovering antibody drugs. Gerngross, who co-founded Adimab with MIT protein engineering expert K. Dane Wittrup, has made a compelling enough case for the technology to attract venture investments from Polaris Venture Partners, SV Life Sciences, Borealis Ventures, and OrbiMed Advisors. As I wrote in a story about Adimab in February, the firm is developing a simulated immune system that consists of yeast cells that are engineered to produce and present on their surfaces some 10 billion different antibodies. Researchers can use the system to identify potential new treatments by introducing disease-related molecules such as tumor proteins into to the system and seeing which antibodies bind to those targets. The system can identify antibodies for certain disease targets in matter of eight weeks, which can be several months faster than available antibody-discovery techniques, Gerngross says.
The deal with Merck represents a return to what has been a productive well for Gerngross. In 2006, Merck paid $400 million for GlycoFi, which Gerngross co-founded and helped run as chief scientific officer. (Merck’s GlycoFi unit, which uses recombinant yeast technology to make protein-based drugs, operates in the same building as Adimab near Dartmouth.) The deal with Roche is especially significant because Roche recently completed its acquisition of Genentech, a major provider of antibody drugs such as cancer treatment bevacizumab (Avastin) and rituximab (Rituxan) for lymphoma and rheumatoid arthritis. That the owner of Genentech, which has antibody-discovery capabilities of its own, would collaborate with Adimab is a big endorsement for the startup’s platform.
“It’s [Adimab’s] commercial coming out party in a sense; the technology passes enough muster that people are obviously willing to pay for it,” says Mike Ross, a managing partner at SV Life Sciences, who serves as a director at Adimab. Ross previously invested in GlycoFi, and has since brought Gerngross aboard as a venture partner at his firm.
Adimab is in the midst of talks with multiple other potential collaborators, says Gerngross. He says that in addition to large drug companies, his startup is talking to smaller firms with expertise in specific fields such as cancer treatment and inflammatory diseases, with the goal of forming new spin-off firms to develop antibody drugs discovered with Adimab’s technology in those specific fields. Adimab itself has no interest in developing drugs on its own, he says, adding that the firm will stick to the strategy of making money through technology licensing and other collaborations.
“The longer-term plan is to transfer the technology and make it available to big pharma partners, where they can bring it in-house and basically use it for their own purposes,” Gerngross. The plan is to become profitable with the income from such partnerships, he says.
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