Versant partners with AbCellera to arm startups with better antibodies
The next time a startup backed by Versant Ventures sets out to develop an antibody drug, it won’t be starting from scratch.
On Wednesday, Versant, a prolific backer of biotechnology companies, revealed a multi-year partnership with AbCellera, which specializes in discovering antibodies that make good candidates for development into medicines. Through the deal, new drugmakers launched by Versant can tap AbCellera to sift for antibodies matched to disease targets they select.
Already, Versant and AbCellera have worked together to jumpstart work by three of the venture firm’s startups that are developing antibody drugs for cancer and immune disease. (The companies have not yet launched publicly.)
“There are only a few reliable, fully human antibody suppliers out there,” said Markus Enzelberger, a partner at Versant, in an interview.
“Every time, we had to sit down again and negotiate terms with each company,” Enzelberger added. “We thought, with so many early-stage companies — all in need of antibodies — why not enter a long-term partnership where at least the paperwork is already done, so we can get a head start to fuel new molecules into our young companies?”
AbCellera was a natural choice, Enzelberger said. Founded in 2012, the Canada-based company has built a fast-growing business around antibody discovery and the varied laboratory and software tools that enable it. Some of the largest pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis, Pfizer and Gilead, have signed up to work with AbCellera, along with a host of smaller companies.
Early in 2020, Eli Lilly turned to AbCellera to help it identify antibodies for treating COVID-19 from the plasma of a recovered patient. Their work led to bamlanivimab, which later that year became the first antibody authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for use against the disease. AbCellera also discovered another antibody, bebtolivimab, that won FDA authorization after bamlanivimab was withdrawn for lack of effectiveness versus the omicron variant.
Versant and AbCellera’s partnership also has a personal element, as AbCellera’s CEO Carl Hansen has known Enzelberger for over two decades. After striking deals for the three companies still in stealth, the companies sought ways to make the process easier and faster, Hansen said.
“Our business is advanced by great ideas coming into the funnel and teams and capital to pick it up on the back end,” Hansen added.
Under the collaboration, portfolio companies of Versant can develop antibodies discovered by AbCellera, which will receive research payments from those firms as well as additional money based on clinical and commercial milestones.
According to Enzelberger, the partnership could also help Versant attract founders with ideas for new startups. “It’s not only the financing for us. It’s really offering the complete infrastructure and ecosystem to develop a company,” he said.
In that sense, the partnership is part of a trend of biotech venture firms becoming more hands-on with the companies they help create. Some, like Flagship Pioneering and Third Rock Ventures, typically launch startups they’ve incubated in their own labs and then help staff them as they begin their work.
For AbCellera, the partnership is another step toward its grand goal of “democratizing” antibody discovery by giving companies access to all the tools and technologies they need. (Competitors to AbCellera, like Genmab, Adimab and Charles River Laboratories, also offer some of these.)
“In biotech, the model has been, if you’ve got an idea, you’ve got to start from scratch,” Hansen said. “You have to build all the underlying capabilities, teams [and] infrastructure, and that’s a huge barrier to moving ideas.”
While antibody medicines are now commonplace — there are more than 100 approved in the U.S. — development is still long, costly and, AbCellera argues, hamstrung by limitations in how drugmakers choose their starting candidates.
“The reality is early companies, they’re having to compromise very often on getting exactly the right candidate,” said Hansen. “It just shows a structural problem with technology not connecting well with science.”
Partnerships like the one AbCellera has struck with Versant, he added, will “make for a healthier ecosystem of venture creation.”
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