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.”