The Innovators: AbCellera Biologics found its moment to shine amid the pandemic

Credit: AbCellera Biologics

First Responder: AbCellera founder and CEO Carl Hansen

The Vancouver biotech player was the first out with a COVID-fighting antibody treatment—and leveraged it into a record-breaking IPO

When COVID-19 struck, AbCellera Biologics was better prepared than most. Since 2018, through a contract with the Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) program run by the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Vancouver-based biotech outfit had been using its expertise in antibody discovery and immune profiling to lead the development of a rapid pandemic response. This work took place against the backdrop of the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, which had left governments and health officials scrambling.

AbCellera, founded in 2012 by CEO Carl Hansen out of work at his UBC lab, has pioneered an antibody discovery platform that searches and analyzes natural immune systems to find antibodies for disease prevention and treatment. The company uses data science, machine learning, genomics and other methods to identify new drug candidates and bring treatments to the clinic faster.

In simulated pandemic responses with its P3 partners, AbCellera had shown that it could swiftly isolate antibodies capable of neutralizing Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome–caused by a coronavirus–and administer a therapeutic that completely protected rats from a lethal dose of flu virus. Last January, shifting focus to what would become a pandemic, the company put its technology to work against COVID.

In March, AbCellera discovered antibodies against the novel coronavirus with the Maryland-based National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Vaccine Research Center and partnered with U.S. pharmaceuticals titan Eli Lilly & Co. to develop them. In early June, bamlanivimab (LY-CoV555), the lead antibody discovered by AbCellera, became the first monoclonal antibody therapy specifically targeting the virus to reach human clinical trials. From sample to clinic, the process took about 90 days.

In September, Lilly announced the results from a Phase 2 clinical trial of bamlanivimab on about 450 patients with mild to moderate COVID symptoms. That trial showed a 72-percent risk reduction: just 1.7 percent of people taking the drug needed hospitalization, versus 6 percent in the placebo group. Lilly recently won American approval for bamlanivimab as an emergency treatment for certain COVID patients, and the U.S. government and Army have agreed to pay almost US$700 million for doses of the therapy.

AbCellera also closed US$105 million in Series B financing last year, from investors including Lilly and Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel, who sits on its board. Industry monitor Fierce Biotech named it to the 2020 edition of the Fierce 15 list, which recognizes promising private biotechnology companies.

The company capped the year by going public on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange. In the biggest-ever IPO by a Canadian biotech player, AbCellera raised more than US$550 million—making Hansen a billionaire. As of February 1, it had a market capitalization of almost US$13 billion, with its stock trading at about US$49.