Adimab Adds Genentech, Lilly, and Human Genome Sciences to Growing List of Partners

Xconomy Boston — 

Adimab has made its name for assembling a high-profile roster of Big Pharma partners that use its technology to discover new antibody drugs. Today, the Lebanon, NH-based company is announcing a new batch of partners—Genentech, Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY), and Human Genome Sciences (NASDAQ:HGSI)—which add greater heft to co-founder and CEO Tillman Gerngross’s argument that his firm has vastly improved the way antibody drugs are discovered.

Adimab, which co-founded by Gerngross and Dane Wittrup of MIT in 2007, says it has now struck 15 antibody discovery agreements, up from five at the end of last year. Not all of its partners have agreed to be named, but the firm’s yeast-based system for discovering fully human antibodies has now attracted collaborations with the U.S. drug giant Merck (NYSE:MRK), Novartis, Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), and Roche, in addition to the latest trio of partnerships being disclosed today.

Adimab’s collaborators are seeking an edge in the competitive field of antibody drug discovery, and the startup’s system has shown it can produce quality antibody candidates against specific disease targets in shorter timeframes than traditional methods. “They are all looking for something better and more competitive, and right now we are the ones that are offering that,” Gerngross says. Antibody therapies already generate about $25 billion in annual sales and the rate of growth in that market has outpaced that of traditional small molecule drugs.

With Genentech, Adimab now has a collaboration with the most successful developer of antibody drugs in the world, Gerngross says. The South San Francisco company, the U.S. unit of Switzerland-based Roche, markets some of the best-selling antibody drugs on the planet such as the blockbuster cancer treatments bevacizumab (Avastin), rituximab (Rituxan), and trastuzumab (Herceptin). Adimab’s agreement with Genentech requires it to apply its technology to discover antibodies for two undisclosed drug targets, and it gives the startup upfront fees, licensing payments, potential milestone fees, and potential royalties on product sales.

Adimab didn’t disclose specific financial terms of its agreements or the exact disease targets its new collaborators wish to pursue with the startup’s drug-discovery platform. Rockville, MD-based Human Genome Sciences’s deal calls for the discovery of antibodies against just one target, while the Lilly and Genentech pacts include two targets. While the smallest of Adimab’s three new partners by sales, Human Genome Sciences sells an antibody drug to the U.S. government called raxibacumab (Abthrax) for treating victims of anthrax inhalation and its lead experimental antibody therapy for lupus, belimumab (Benlysta), is under review at the FDA for potential approval in March 2011.

Given the volume of Adimab’s deals, it now makes more sense how the startup raised $4 million in a fifth-round financing last month at what Gerngross says was a pre-money valuation of about $520 million. Clearly, the firm’s venture backers who invested in the round—Borealis Ventures, Google Ventures, OrbiMed Advisors, Polaris Venture Partners, SV Life Sciences—have high hopes for the startup and were willing to pay handsomely for more of its stock. (Adimab’s pre-money valuation was also much higher than the current market caps of two of its publicly traded rivals in the antibody-discovery game, Germany’s MorphoSys and Cambridge, MA-based Dyax (NASDAQ:DYAX)). [[include links to Google Finance pages]]

“I think there’s some expectation built in that this technology is going to displace less competitive technologies in years to come,” Gerngross says.

Meantime, Adimab says it is starting to win repeat customers. Adimab has announced that one of its original collaborators, Merck, has exercised its option to begin a new project with the firm concerning another drug target. The startup says it also achieved a technical milestone in its collaboration with Novartis that began June 30. (Gerngross was quick to note back in July that Novartis agreed to try out his firm’s technology even after inking an antibody deal with MorphoSys. The companies struck that deal back in 2007 and it is potentially worth more than $1 billion).

Adimab is not planning to develop drugs of its own, so it will be up to its collaborators to advance antibodies discovered with the firm’s technology into clinical trials. Of course, the performance of the firm’s antibodies in treating humans is a truer test of their value than almost anything else. Gerngross says that an unnamed partner of his firm could be the first company to take one of its antibodies into a human clinical trial as early as next year.