There’s a hard and fast rule at Adimab, a company that makes money by discovering and optimizing antibodies to pass off to drug development companies: Don’t compete with the customers.
So, when its antibody science group produced a portfolio of anti-coronavirus antibodies, the Lebanon, NH-based company decided to spin off the assets into a new company, Adagio Therapeutics, which has raised $50 million to move ahead the potential treatments and preventative proteins.
Waltham, MA-based Adagio is headed by Tillman Gerngross, who co-founded and leads Adimab, one of a string of biotechs he has launched. He started the new company with Laura Walker, who has headed Adimab’s antibody science group for about eight years and is now Adagio’s chief scientific officer, and Rene Russo, who is currently CEO of Xilio Therapeutics and serves as head of Adagio’s board of directors. Their goal was to develop a way to address the pandemic of today and potentially avoid the viral outbreaks of tomorrow.
“This is a class of viruses that has repeatedly spilled over into humans with varying degrees of impact, the most severe one being the current outbreak, but [Walker’s] ambition was not just to solve the current problem … but to think about the problem in a more strategic or holistic way,” he said in an interview.
Her group at Adimab analyzed antibodies from the blood of a COVID-19 patient and from the blood of a patient who had been infected with SARS, and found a “good handful” that neutralized both. After additional optimization, they also tested those they had identified against two coronaviruses that are currently circulating in bats—a key source of viruses that infect humans—and found they were effective against those too.
A number of companies are pursuing potential antibody treatments against the new coronavirus, including Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: REGN), and Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) with partners AbCellera and Junshi Biosciences. But Adagio aims to develop something that can do more than tackle the virus behind today’s pandemic.
“This is exactly what we set out to do at the beginning: to have an agent, in the form of an antibody, that can neutralize an entire class of viruses,” Gerngross said. “No matter how they combine in nature, when they pop up, we have a solution to that problem.”
Gerngross says the company aims to create something that is able to address the broader issue of the repeating nature of the infections caused by the coronavirus family. He considered partnering with a pharma company to advance the antibodies, as Adimab does, but felt that forming a new company would provide a better path toward that longer-term goal.
Polaris Partners and Mithril Capital led Adagio’s financing. Fidelity Management & Research Company, OrbiMed, M28 Capital, the Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) investment arm GV, and Merck (NYSE: MRK) corporate venture arm MRL Ventures also invested. Adagio says the money should get its lead candidates through the studies needed to request the FDA’s permission to start human tests, plus early clinical development. The company anticipates moving its lead candidate into the clinic later this year.
Gerngross envisions a drug that would treat the infection as well as offer multiple months of protection against the virus, plus other coronaviruses in the event of another making the jump from animals to humans. The antibodies that Adagio is advancing target an area on the spike protein—molecules on the virus’s shell that facilitate its infection of healthy cells—that appear on multiple coronaviruses. And while the company raised the funds it announced Thursday before the recent release of early data from studies evaluating leading contenders in the race to a COVID-19 vaccine, Gerngross says the information that’s emerging casts doubt on the effectiveness and durability of such measures.
“The world is entirely focused right now on the vaccine that’s supposedly going to appear, and I just have a much more pessimistic view on that based on what we’re seeing on data coming out of convalescent patients,” he said. “People who have had a live infection are not very protected; 30 percent of them have no neutralizing antibodies, so how a vaccine is going to outperform that is a mystery to me.”
M28 Capital founder Marc Elia, who last year left the hedge firm Bridger Capital to start his own firm to invest in healthcare companies, had a front-row seat to Adimab’s coronavirus work and the decision to spin it out into a new firm. He invested in Adimab while at Bridger, a deal that came with a board seat.
Knowing the expertise of the scientists involved gave him confidence in the new company’s goals, he said in an interview. And while the Adimab business transfers its discoveries for others to pursue development and commercialization, the group of executives who signed on to launch Adagio have that experience.
“Adagio is this company that’s sort of a startup on paper, but it brings together people who have worked together over the relatively long term and are relatively experienced, such that I think the resulting organization has the industrial acumen and capability of a fairly mature, long-established company,” he said.
Adagio’s C-suite includes Lynn Connolly, most recently senior vice president, clinical research and medical affairs, at Vir Biotechnology (NASADAQ: VIR) as chief medical officer and Paul Ambrose, president of the Institute for Clinical Pharmacodynamics, as chief translational medicine officer.
As part of the deal, Elia, Polaris’s Terry McGuire, Mithril’s Ajay Royan, and Adimab general counsel Phillip Chase join Russo and Gerngross on the Adagio board.