Most of the best-selling drugs worldwide today are antibodies, and in the three decades-plus since the first such drug was approved, makers of such treatments have begun endeavoring to design drugs to tackle ever more difficult classes of therapeutic targets.
Vancouver, BC-based AbCellera, which launched in 2012 based on work by CEO Carl Hansen (pictured), uses data science tools including machine-learning algorithms to find potential drug candidates by poring over millions of antibodies produced in reaction to the introduction of antigens into the immune system.
On Wednesday the company announced it raised a $105 million Series B round of financing from a mix of life sciences and technology investors, money that it plans to use to enhance its discovery toolkit as well as add dozens of additional employees and more than double its R&D space.
AbCellera’s work is intended to turn a process it describes as “arduous and unpredictable” into a quicker, more effective system—and by doing so, speed up the development of new antibody drugs for pharma and biotech companies.
Hansen, in an interview, said as the company has met the goals set by its customers, AbCellera’s primary issue has become handling incoming interest.
“The business has started to come to us, and the problem has been one of capacity, and we need to make the investment in the team, and facilities, and people to be able to service that market,” he said.
Now the company has about 140 employees. Hansen says he plans to add about 100 more over the next 12 months. To accommodate its growth, sometime next year AbCellera plans to open a 48,000-square foot R&D facility to complement the 30,000 square feet, across two buildings, in which its employees currently operate.
AbCellera says its tools have helped internal drug discovery teams with especially difficult targets.
“The early growth of the antibody therapeutics market was driven primarily by going after the targets that were not particularly difficult to find antibodies that bound and that did the right thing,” he said. “Of course, over time those drug targets are taken, and drug companies, particularly big pharma, are being pushed into different classes of targets that have traditionally been exceedingly difficult, if not completely refractory, to the legacy technologies that have been used.”
Separately, partnering with biotechs is typically a way for those small companies to take their innovative ideas and, using AbCellera’s drug discovery technology, turn that research into an optimized antibody ready for development, he said.
In the next few years, Hansen envisions building out a manufacturing facility of perhaps 150,000 square feet to enable AbCellera to make antibodies in quantities large enough to support clinical tests through the end of Phase 2 trials.
Initially the company incubated for three years at the University of British Columbia, where Hansen was a professor. Then, in 2018, AbCellera raised its first outside financing: a $10 million round led by DCVC Bio.
DCVC and OrbiMed led the Series B financing announced this week. Viking Global Investors, Peter Thiel, Founders Fund, Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY), University of Minnesota, and Presight Capital also participated.
Earlier this year AbCellera struck an alliance with Lilly to assist the pharma in creating an antibody drug for COVID-19. Using a blood sample from one of the first US patients to recover from the infection, the Canadian company turned up more than 500 antibodies that could potentially be turned into medicines. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have been testing them to determine which are most potent.