The next time a Versant Ventures-backed startup develops an antibody drug, it won’t be starting from scratch.
On Wednesday, Versant, a prolific supporter of biotechnology companies, announced a multi-year partnership with AbCellera, which specializes in discovering antibodies that are good candidates for drug development. The agreement allows new drugmakers founded by Versant to use AbCellera to screen for antibodies tailored to disease targets of their choosing.
Versant and AbCellera have previously worked together to boost work at the venture firm’s three startups developing antibody drugs for cancer and immune disorders. (The companies have not yet publicly launched.)
“There are only a few reliable suppliers of fully human antibodies,” said Markus Enzelberger, a partner at Versant, in an interview.
“We had to sit down and negotiate the conditions with each company every time,” adds Enzelberger. “We thought, with so many early-stage companies – all of which require antibodies – why not enter into a long-term partnership where at least the paperwork is already done so that we have a head start to bring new molecules into our fledgling companies ?”
AbCellera was a natural choice, Enzelberger said. Founded in 2012 and based in Canada, the company has built a fast-growing business centered around antibody discovery and the diverse laboratory and software tools that make it possible. Some of the largest pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis, Pfizer and Gilead, along with a host of smaller companies have signed up to work with AbCellera.
In early 2020, Eli Lilly approached AbCellera to help identify antibodies to treat COVID-19 from a recovered patient’s plasma. Their work led to bamlanivimab, which later that year became the first antibody approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use against the disease. AbCellera also discovered another antibody, bebtolivimab, which received FDA approval after bamlanivimab was withdrawn for lack of efficacy over the Omicron variant.
There is also a personal component to the Versant/AbCellera partnership, as AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen has known Enzelberger for over two decades. After closing deals for the three companies, which were still in secret, the companies looked for ways to make the process easier and faster, Hansen said.
“Our business is driven by great ideas coming down the funnel and teams and capital picking it up at the back end,” added Hansen.
Under the terms of the collaboration, Versant portfolio companies may develop AbCellera-discovered antibodies and receive research payments from those companies, as well as additional funding based on clinical and commercial milestones.
According to Enzelberger, the Versant partnership could also help to attract founders with ideas for new startups. “For us, it’s not just the funding. It really provides the complete infrastructure and ecosystem to develop a business,” he said.
In that sense, the partnership is part of a trend in which biotech venture firms are taking a more hands-on approach to the companies they help create. Some, like Flagship Pioneering and Third Rock Ventures, typically create startups they’ve incubated in their own labs and then help staff them when they start work.
For AbCellera, the partnership is another step toward its grand goal of “democratizing” antibody research by giving companies access to all the tools and technology they need. (AbCellera’s competitors, like Genmab, Adimab, and Charles River Laboratories, also offer some of these.)
“In biotechnology, the model was, if you have an idea, you have to start from scratch,” Hansen said. “You have to build all the underlying skills, teams [and] Infrastructure, and that’s a big barrier to bringing ideas to fruition.”
While antibody drugs are commonplace today — more than 100 are approved in the U.S. — development is still lengthy, costly and, AbCellera argues, constrained by restrictions on drugmakers’ choices in selecting their parent candidates.
“The reality is that young companies very often have to make compromises in order to find exactly the right candidate,” said Hansen. “It just shows a structural problem with the technology that doesn’t blend well with science.”
Partnerships like the one AbCellera has with Versant, he added, will “make for a healthier business creation ecosystem.”