Left to right: AbCellera head of BD Kevin Heyries, CEO Carl Hansen, COO Véronique Lecault, head of corporate development Murray McCutcheon

Ab­Cellera rais­es $105M in first ma­jor ven­ture round as Covid-19 an­ti­body nears clin­ic

Over its first decade of ex­is­tence, Ab­Cellera had many things: A new tech­nol­o­gy with sci-fi vibes, fund­ing from the Bill & Melin­da Gates Foun­da­tion, gov­ern­ment con­tracts, part­ner­ships with large phar­ma com­pa­nies and biotechs, a re­search fa­cil­i­ty in Van­cou­ver with dozens and then even­tu­al­ly over a hun­dred em­ploy­ees. Even, most re­cent­ly, a lead­ing ex­per­i­men­tal Covid-19 treat­ment.

They just didn’t have what al­most every biotech did: streams of ven­ture cash.

That’s chang­ing to­day. Ab­Cellera has an­nounced a $105 mil­lion Se­ries B round, led by Or­biMed and DCVC. The in­flux is more than 10 times the com­pa­ny’s 2018 Se­ries A: a $10 mil­lion round that came af­ter years of self-fund­ing through part­ner­ships. It will go to­ward adding more than 100 em­ploy­ees to the cur­rent 140-per­son staff, the com­ple­tion of a sprawl­ing new R&D fa­cil­i­ty next year and, even­tu­al­ly, its own man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ty.

“It’s been quite a re­mark­able path to get here,” CEO Carl Hansen told End­points News. It “is quite a shift in strat­e­gy now in think­ing of a large fi­nanc­ing, which is re­flec­tive of our be­lief that there’s a huge op­por­tu­ni­ty and that cap­i­tal be­ing de­ployed in build­ing and in­te­grat­ing tech­nolo­gies, in build­ing ca­pac­i­ty, should be com­men­su­rate with that op­por­tu­ni­ty.

“We’re sort of chang­ing our pos­ture,” he added. “It’s now a pos­ture of ag­gres­sive growth.”

The fi­nanc­ing round comes af­ter Ab­Cellera has emerged from rel­a­tive anonymi­ty to be­come one of the most-watched de­vel­op­ers of Covid-19 treat­ments, writ­ten up in Busi­ness­week and MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Re­view. Their lab-on-a-chip de­vice, based on work Hansen had done at the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Co­lum­bia, iso­lates an­ti­body-pro­duc­ing cells from blood sam­ples and us­es ma­chine learn­ing to iso­late the best ones. They ob­tained a blood sam­ple from a Covid-19 sur­vivor in Feb­ru­ary, be­gan a part­ner­ship with Eli Lil­ly the next month, and the phar­ma gi­ant is plan­ning to file an IND for their lead an­ti­body by the end of the month — one of three com­pa­nies, along­side Vir and Re­gen­eron, on sim­i­lar clin­i­cal paths. Al­though not a vac­cine, an­ti­bod­ies have been used to ef­fec­tive­ly treat or, for a short pe­ri­od, pre­vent oth­er in­fec­tious dis­eases such as Ebo­la and RSV.

Ab­Cellera, though, had al­ready pro­vid­ed that “lab-on-a-chip” tech­nol­o­gy to nu­mer­ous oth­er com­pa­nies who had sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly de­fined tar­gets but want­ed Ab­Cellera’s ex­per­tise in se­lect­ing an­ti­bod­ies — they cite 55 dif­fer­ent “com­plet­ed pro­grams,” and have worked with Gilead, Pfiz­er, Glax­o­SmithK­line, Mer­ck, No­var­tis and the US De­part­ment of De­fense — and Hansen said the fi­nanc­ing had been un­der dis­cus­sions since the fall. Covid-19 changed lit­tle, ex­cept to pro­vide the same head­winds that have buf­fet­ed biotech: They’ve shuf­fled shifts and hours, even as they de­vot­ed much of their staff to an all-out ef­fort to de­vel­op a treat­ment.

“If any­thing Covid-19 is a time-com­pressed ex­am­ple of what we’ve built the com­pa­ny to do,” Hansen said. “To look at a sit­u­a­tion where there’s an ur­gent need for a ther­a­peu­tic and bring a tech­nol­o­gy to ac­cel­er­ate that.”

The Se­ries B (which al­so fea­tured Viking Glob­al In­vestors, Pe­ter Thiel, Founders Fund, Eli Lil­ly, Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, and Pre­sight Cap­i­tal) will ex­pand their re­search ca­pac­i­ty to reach what Hansen said has been a long-run­ning rise in in­ter­est from oth­er com­pa­nies who want to part­ner with them. On top of tack­ling more pre­clin­i­cal projects, they’ll even­tu­al­ly be able to man­u­fac­ture an­ti­bod­ies through Phase II.

There are no plans, though, to bring their own drugs to mar­ket. Hansen is stick­ing with his bread and but­ter.

“The whole the­sis of the com­pa­ny is that we’re a tech­nol­o­gy and not a biotech,” he said. “We are not go­ing to change.”

Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos (via Getty Images)

With ad­u­canum­ab caught on a cliff, Bio­gen’s Michel Vounatsos bets bil­lions on an­oth­er high-risk neu­ro play

With its FDA pitch on the Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab hanging perilously close to disaster, Biogen is rolling the dice on a $3.1 billion deal that brings in commercial rights to one of the other spotlight neuro drugs in late-stage development — after it already failed its first Phase III.

The big biotech has turned to Sage Therapeutics for its latest deal, close to a year after the crushing failure of Sage-217, now dubbed zuranolone, in the MOUNTAIN study.

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Pascal Soriot (AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: As­traZeneca, Ox­ford on the de­fen­sive as skep­tics dis­miss 70% av­er­age ef­fi­ca­cy for Covid-19 vac­cine

On the third straight Monday that the world wakes up to positive vaccine news, AstraZeneca and Oxford are declaring a new Phase III milestone in the fight against the pandemic. Not everyone is convinced they will play a big part, though.

With an average efficacy of 70%, the headline number struck analysts as less impressive than the 95% and 94.5% protection that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have boasted in the past two weeks, respectively. But the British partners say they have several other bright spots going for their candidate. One of the two dosing regimens tested in Phase III showed a better profile, bringing efficacy up to 90%; the adenovirus vector-based vaccine requires minimal refrigeration, which may mean easier distribution; and AstraZeneca has pledged to sell it at a fraction of the price that the other two vaccine developers are charging.

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Covid-19 roundup: Eu­rope pur­chas­es 80M dos­es of Mod­er­na's vac­cine; CO­V­AXX se­cures $2.8B in emerg­ing mar­ket pre-or­ders

With the announcement of its vaccine efficacy data last week, Moderna is starting to line up customers for its Covid-19 mRNA jabs.

The Massachusetts-based biotech announced Wednesday it has agreed to sell an initial round of 80 million doses to the European Commission, with the option to double the amount to 160 million. Once the member states rubber stamp the approval, the deal will be finalized.

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Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter Ko­dak de­ba­cle, US lends $1.1B to a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy com­pa­ny and their big Covid-19, mR­NA plans

In mid-August, as Kodak’s $765 million government-backed push into drug manufacturing slowly fell apart in national headlines, Ginkgo Bioworks CEO Jason Kelly got a message from his company’s government liaison: HHS wanted to know if they, too, might want a loan.

The government’s decision to lend Kodak three quarters of a billion dollars raised eyebrows because Kodak had never made drugs before. But Ginkgo, while not a manufacturing company, had spent the last decade refining new ways to produce materials inside cells and building automated facilities across Boston.

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Michelle Longmire, Medable CEO (Jeff Rumans)

Med­able gets $91M for vir­tu­al clin­i­cal tri­als, bring­ing to­tal raise to $136M

As biotechs look to get clinical studies back on track amid the pandemic, Medable returned to the venture well for the second time this year, bagging a $91 million Series C to build out its virtual trial platform.

The software provider recently launched three new apps for decentralizing clinical trials, and saw a 500% revenue spike this year. And it isn’t alone. Back in August, Science 37 secured a $40 million round for its virtual trial tech, with support from Novartis, Sanofi Ventures and Amgen. Patients and researchers are taking a liking to the online approach, suggesting regulators could allow it to become a new normal even after the pandemic is over.

Feng Tian, Ambrx CEO (Ambrx)

Af­ter 5 qui­et years, a for­mer Scripps spin­out rais­es $200M and an­nounces plans to try again at an IPO

The first time San Diego biotech Ambrx tried to go public in 2014, they failed and the company’s board switched to a radically different strategy: They sold themselves for an undisclosed amount to a syndicate of Chinese investors and pharma companies.

Now, after 5 quiet years, that syndicate has raised a mountain of cash and indicated they’ll soon make another bid to go public.

Earlier this month, Ambrx raised $200 million in what they billed as a crossover round financed by Fidelity, BlackRock, Cormorant Asset Management, HBM Healthcare Investments, Invus, Adage Capital Partners and Suvretta Capital Management. It’s the largest amount they’ve ever raised and, according to Crunchbase figures, more than doubles the total amount of VC capital collected since their launch 17 years ago.

The ad­u­canum­ab co­nun­drum: The PhI­II failed a clear reg­u­la­to­ry stan­dard, but no one is cer­tain what that means any­more at the FDA

Eighteen days ago, virtually all of the outside experts on an FDA adcomm got together to mug the agency’s Billy Dunn and the Biogen team when they presented their upbeat assessment on aducanumab. But here we are, more than 2 weeks later, and the ongoing debate over that Alzheimer’s drug’s fate continues unabated.

Instead of simply ruling out any chance of an approval, the logical conclusion based on what we heard during that session, a series of questionable approvals that preceded the controversy over the agency’s recent EUA decisions has come back to haunt the FDA, where the power of precedent is leaving an opening some experts believe can still be exploited by the big biotech.

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John Maraganore, Alnylam CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Al­ny­lam gets the green light from the FDA for drug #3 — and CEO John Maraganore is ready to roll

Score another early win at the FDA for Alnylam.

The FDA put out word today that the agency has approved its third drug, lumasiran, for primary hyperoxaluria type 1, better known as PH1. The news comes just 4 days after the European Commission took the lead in offering a green light.

An ultra rare genetic condition, Alnylam CEO John Maraganore says there are only some 1,000 to 1,700 patients in the US and Europe at any particular point. The patients, mostly kids, suffer from an overproduction of oxalate in the liver that spurs the development of kidney stones, right through to end stage kidney disease.

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Bob Nelsen (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images)

Bob Nelsen rais­es $800M and re­cruits a star-stud­ded board to build the 'Fox­con­n' of biotech

Bob Nelsen spent his pandemic spring in his Seattle home, talking on the phone with Luciana Borio, the scientist who used to run pandemic preparedness on the National Security Council, and fuming with her about the dire state of American manufacturing.

Companies were rushing to develop vaccines and antibodies for the new virus, but even if they succeeded, there was no immediate supply chain or infrastructure to mass-produce them in a way that could make a dent in the outbreak.

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