How AbCellera helps partners propel their antibody therapies to the clinic

Carl Hansen, founder and CEO of Vancouver-based AbCellera, sits down with Rebecca Willumson, publisher of Fierce Biotech, to discuss how the company has positioned itself in the antibodies space.

The antibody therapy market has grown tremendously in the past decade, and it’s accelerating, with new players and new modalities being introduced. There’s a premium on better technologies that can level the playing field so smaller companies can quickly develop their therapies.

AbCellera launched with strong competencies baked into its core business strategy. Focusing on the product creation step of antibody drug development, AbCellera helps innovators of all sizes take their drug therapy from an idea to a candidate for clinical development. Using its technology to speed up and scale the discovery of antibody therapies, AbCellera helps level the playing field for small companies who can focus on innovation rather than reinventing the wheel. And AbCellera works with larger companies to solve even the most challenging discovery problems to bring programs to the clinic, together.

In this interview, learn why AbCellera’s antibody discovery engine makes it the best partner to help propel a therapy from concept to clinic.

Rebecca Willumson: Hi there. I'm Rebecca Willumson. I'm the publisher of Fierce Biotech, and I'm here today with Carl Hansen, CEO of AbCellera. Carl, thanks so much for joining me today.

Carl Hansen: Thank you, Rebecca. It's great to be here.

Rebecca Willumson: Okay. So before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about your role and your work at AbCellera?

Carl Hansen: Sure. I am the founding CEO of AbCellera. So AbCellera is a biotechnology company in Vancouver that was founded about 10 years ago out of my academic research lab, where I was a professor before. So have been leading the company for the last 10 years and enjoying it very much.

Rebecca Willumson: Very good. So to kick things off, tell me what's AbCellera doing that you think will make a big impact on the industry?

Carl Hansen: Well, AbCellera works in the space of antibody therapies, and the entire company purpose is to rethink and redesign and rebuild an engine that allows you to go from an idea right through to a candidate that is going into clinical development. So in therapeutic or drug development, in general, there's three steps. And one is the ideation step, which is defining what is the target and what do I want my therapy to do. There's a product creation step which is taking that idea and turning it into the drug that then goes into testing. And there's the development.

AbCellera is laser-focused on one thing, and that is the product creation step for antibody therapies. And our view is that there exists new technologies that can be brought together to completely rethink and reinvent and rebuild that process so that we can go from an idea to clinical testing with greater speed, do it at greater scale, and solve problems that have been out there for a long time and that, if you could solve them, would unlock big therapeutic opportunities. So that's what we do.

And then our idea is to build that engine and then bring it to the industry through partnerships, and allow the small companies to level the playing field and focus on their innovations. They're not having to reinvent the wheel. Work with the venture capital groups to make it easier and faster and more capital-efficient to get new ventures off the ground. And finally, work with the largest companies to help them in the cases where their technologies, most of which have been developed not deliberately but organically, since the '90s, have run into problems. Help them to get over those hurdles and move things that are stuck to the point where they can put them into late-stage preclinical development and ultimately get to the market.

And in all of those partnerships, what we aim to do is really push a win-win strategy where we cut deals, where the success of the product is directly linked to the success of the partner, of course, and to our success. So we're building a large and diversified portfolio of positions in the next generation of antibody therapies.

Rebecca Willumson: So talk to me a little bit about what has AbCellera accomplished that demonstrates the power of that discovery engine?

Carl Hansen: Well, so it's a great question because this is a sector where there's always new ideas coming out, and you're always hypothetically talking about what it will do for the industry. But really, what you need to do is show that that can have some impact and get validation outside of your walls.

So I'd say the three areas of validation for us have been, first, a very strong partnership business. So we invest in building an antibody discovery engine that can work at scale, and we work broadly with the ecosystem, from small companies to big companies, to help them get more effectively to their end goal. Over the past years, we have now worked on about 92 different partnered programs, and that has included deals with really the who's who across the gamut of companies. So biotech companies, great science but not necessarily enabled, premier venture capital groups that are creating companies and have ideas and executives and capital and a business case but lack the underlying technologies and capacity to advance things. And also some of the biggest and most enabled companies, companies like Eli Lilly, companies like Regeneron recently a deal with AbbVie. So third-party validation, I think, is one of the things that proves that there's something that's working well and is getting recognized as a leading capability in the industry.

We also have made some big progress, over the past couple of years, in unlocking large target spaces where we see that there's not just one potential therapy, but whole classes of therapy that have proven difficult to get to really just based on technological limitations. And two examples of that are in T-cell engagers, where we've done tremendous work and a very long-standing effort that's really picking up steam in addressing difficult target classes like GPCRs and ion channels.

And then, lastly, and probably the one that people are most familiar with, is the work we did in Covid-19, where we found ourselves in a position to respond quickly and bring forward, with Eli Lilly as a partner, two therapies, Bamlanivimab and Bebtelovimab, which have been administered to over 2 million patients, and we now have a third that hopefully will find its way also to approval or authorization for the new variants that come up. So an example of us having succeeded not once but twice, and hopefully three times, in what is arguably one of the more competitive and certainly the most time-sensitive of antibody therapeutic problems that we've seen in a long time.

Rebecca Willumson: For sure. So switching gears a little bit,-

Carl Hansen: Sure.

Rebecca Willumson: ... tell me about some of the investments that y'all are making.

Carl Hansen: Sure. So our strategy simply could be put as first build best-in-world capabilities that go from target to the clinic. And second, use those capabilities with partners to build a large and diversified portfolio of future antibody therapies. So we spent a lot of time on the first part of that strategy, which is investing in capabilities. We've been working on this now for 10 years, building this engine. We have built the company up to about 500 people. I would estimate that we've invested, to date, about $500 million in building the capability to solve this problem, and we're not done yet.

Over the past, let's say, 12 to 18 months, we've roughly doubled the workforce, and a lot of that has been on the back end, which is translational science and being able to go right to manufacturing and produce INDs. So that's one of the big areas of investment. Another big area is in pushing technology to where it hasn't been able to go before. And I mentioned before, GPCRs and ion channels and T-cell engagers, we have big research efforts to enable those classes. And through that work, we're also working on a variety of different targets that could lead to pre-partnered assets. So wholly-owned assets that we would then look to partner with larger companies.

So those two things, which is really about capability building, are roughly two-thirds of the investment. And the other third of the investment is about the thing that really drives the top line on earnings calls and in reports, and that is getting out there, meeting great entrepreneurs, meeting great executives, forging relationships, and then executing on those to help our partners get their molecules from concept through to whatever is the value inflection point for them, typically to the clinic.

Rebecca Willumson: Sure. So in the current market environment, how should biotechs think about de-risking drug discovery?

Carl Hansen: Yeah, so it's been not a terrific market environment, so I think we're probably one of the most epic bear markets that we've seen. In a lot of ways, we're very bullish about the situation that we're in and also the industry in general. Being at the conference, if you attend the meetings, there's a lot of great science. There's a lot of raw substrate of innovation and discovery that's driving the industry forward. There's even a lot of capital, although it might be sitting on the sidelines right now.

A time like this, I think, is really the crucible, where you're seeing what are the good companies that will last. What are the ones that maybe got a bit ahead of themselves or haven't yet matured to the point where you need to survive in this environment? For us, we are right now in a terrific position in terms of capital. We have over 800 million in cash on hand, and that means that we can put our heads down and get to work on staying the course to the strategy that I outlined before.

What our business means is that there are a lot of smaller companies that really feel the pinch right now. And by working with us, we provide an ability to advance ideas and get to value inflection points without them having to reinvest in building the wheel so we can partner with someone in a deal structure that's not very capital intensive. And we strike our deals so that we share in success that aligns our interests with them and also with patients and allows them to access the best-in-class capabilities to move quickly to a clinical asset even in a time when capital is tough.

Rebecca Willumson: So what do you think is the future for antibody therapies?

Carl Hansen: Yeah, I think antibody therapies have a tremendous future. So this is a class that, if you look at it historically, it's actually not that old. So 30 years ago, if you talked about drugs, you were almost certainly talking about small molecules. Starting with some very important technology developments and discoveries in the late '90s, early 2000s, we proved that this was a viable therapeutic modality, and this sector has now grown tremendously. So I'd say over the last 10, 15 years, it has been one of, if not the most, important and one of the fastest growing. So it's gone from zero to maybe $180 billion in total market and 100 approved therapies.

What we see is that that is not slowing down, it's accelerating. It's accelerating for a variety of reasons. One is there are many more players in the space. So this success has attracted a lot of innovation. We are getting a better understanding of the fundamental science, which is providing new target opportunities and excitingly, and I think one of the big trends is there are new modalities in antibodies that are being enabled.

So the first therapies were really simple monoclonals. Now you've got bispecifics. You've got ADCs. You've got cell therapies. And there's a Cambrian explosion of different types of therapies that are going to drive future growth. For us, what that means is that there's also going to be a premium on better technologies, and not just developing technologies that can provide this competitive advantage and get these new modalities, but also getting those technologies out into the ecosystem, so the small companies can get their ideas to the market and plan on an even playing field with the big companies. And so that really is our mission, to bring better technologies and capabilities to the ecosystem and help increase productivity and ultimately get therapies and great science more quickly to the clinic and to patients.

Rebecca Willumson: That's great.

Carl Hansen: Yeah.

Rebecca Willumson: So it's a crowded space, right? What makes you different from other companies doing work in antibody discovery?

Carl Hansen: So obviously this is a big space, and there's a lot of ideas and a lot of good innovation out there. For me, what makes AbCellera unique is not one thing, but a combination of things. First, it was a decade ago that we set out on what I would say is a wildly ambitious, perhaps even a crazy technology development effort. So try to rebuild from scratch an antibody discovery engine that can get ideas at greater speed, greater scale, solve the unsolvable. That is probably going to end up being about a 13-year project that we worked on. And by the time we're done, it's well over $1 billion of investment.

So we started this early. We've got a headstart in that. We have got ourselves to scale. So we're now 500 people. We're scaling quickly. And it really takes that effort to be able to execute not just on one program, but to do this reliably.

And then to all of that, we've taken a lens of being deliberate in how we build it and bringing together best-in-world technologies. So there is a very heavy emphasis built right into the strategy of the company to invest in technology as a way to get improved output.

So that combination of things, I don't think that there exists a company that has the scale, that has taken the same view of integration, and that is as focused on technology. And so we are very excited about our position now and excited even more about what's going to happen in the next few years.

Rebecca Willumson: So we talked about the future. What's coming up for you?

Carl Hansen: It's a great question. We're super excited about what's going to happen over the next 12 to 18 months and also about the longer term. So I was just sitting with some executives the other day, and we are asking ourselves, "How would you characterize last year?" And last year was really a year of a lot of laying the foundation for what we think is going to be some really exciting results that we'll be able to show the world, but things that haven't yet broken the surface.

So that includes a lot of work in forward integration and completing all the technologies and capabilities that are needed to go from a concept, not just to something that's halfway to a therapy, but something that is the final therapy that really moves the needle for partners. So on the partnership side, and particularly with small companies, one of the things we're really excited about is moving to doing fewer partnerships, doing them with the highest quality companies, and taking a deeper involvement in providing a full solution that gets them right to the start of CMC and the final therapeutic. So that, I think, is very different from how a lot of companies in our space are working, where you provide something that's halfway and then you leave your partner to solve it themselves. So that's the first thing on the partnership side.

From the internal work, we are making tremendous progress on building up the translational science, CMC and GMP. That's still going to play out over the next couple years, but by 2024, we will have put in place everything to go from the start of a project right through to the start of clinical development, and to do that at a scale that I don't think has been done by anyone yet in the industry. That's a very ambitious goal, and one that really requires a lot of work in integration and data systems to be able to deal with the complexity and get the efficiencies that come through integration.

And finally, the R&D work that we've done on T-cell engagers and on GPCRs and ion channels, is really starting to pick up. On the T-cell engager side, we're here at the conference talking to many of the big players. There has been a tremendous interest in that. And we expect to be able to share more data from the panel of CD3 molecules that we've done and, also, the first instances of taking that platform and showing that it can quickly generate therapies with better properties.

And on the GPCR and ion channel side, there is programs there where we expect that we'll be able to get to the point of clinical development candidates that could have potential to be first-in-class molecules for indications where there's a high unmet need. And so maybe 2023, the next 12 to 18 months, we think, is really going to be a big inflection point for the company.

Rebecca Willumson: That's great.

Carl Hansen: Thank you.

Rebecca Willumson: Well, I think that's a great way to close out. Thank you so much for chatting today. I thought this was great.

Carl Hansen: Thank you, Rebecca. It's a pleasure.


The editorial staff had no role in this post's creation.