Biotech Absci sees shares soar in IPO debut

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/metamorworks
© GettyImages/metamorworks

Related tags Artificial intelligence IPO E. coli Drug discovery Monoclonal antibodies

Absci Corp, a Vancouver, Washington headquartered synthetic biology company developing technologies to accelerate drug discovery, has gone public.

That IPO, which took place on July 22, was priced at US$16 per share, with a pre-money valuation of about US$1.5bn. Yesterday afternoon [July 26], founder and CEO, Sean McClain, told us that those shares had reached US$23.88 each and the company was valued at US$2.15bn.

The IPO, he continued, was a validation of both the company’s work to date, and an acknowledgement of its future potential.

“Last Thursday was a super emotional and thrilling day. It has been 10 years in the making - to go from basement lab to Wall St. We are now really looking forward to the next decade and what we are going to accomplish.”

Investors have got behind Absci, he said, and believe in its vision of changing the world “one protein at a time.”

The decision to go public was driven by a desire to attract greater talent to the biotech, to help see its vision through, said the CEO.

“Talent has got us to where we are today. We knew that having an IPO would offer us great visibility as we continue to recruit more AI talent as well as SynBio talent. We have gone from 40 employees in 2020 to over 170 employees now, and we will have, most likely, 240 employees by the end of the year.”

Discovery, screening capabilities

The company’s platform is built to design and generate protein-based drug candidates and help screen them for optimal functioning.

McClain likens Absci to being “the Google index search”​ of drug discovery and biomanufacturing.

“One of the exciting aspects of our technology is that we can screen billions of different drug candidates in a single experiment looking at protein functionality and manufacturing ability. This data and this assay is all proprietary to us, and we are feeding this data into our deep learning models and what this allows us to do is ultimately go fully in silico where we can predict the best drug candidate towards a specific target and the associated manufacturing cell line. In the future, data is going to be what drives our business and, ultimately, allow us to get the best drugs to patients at truly unprecedented speed.”

Absci was set up in 2011; the founders set out to identify a more efficient way to manufacture proteins in E. coli​. Proteins have the potential to treat diseases that currently do not have a cure, said the firm.

“Protein-based drugs, or biologics, have already transformed vaccine development, oncology therapies, and treatments for chronic diseases like diabetes but these breakthroughs only scratch the surface of what’s possible. The next generation of biologics will be able to treat the most complex diseases, like neurologic and autoimmune disorders, in highly targeted, and even personalized ways. Proteins have limitless potential and can be designed to be exquisitely specific.”

Its SoluPro technology is a heavily engineered E. coli​ cell line for biologics manufacturing that incorporates a semi-oxidizing cytoplasm and a dual inducible promoter system that supports precise control of protein production rates. According to Absci, SoluPro could benefit biomanufacturers specializing in monoclonal antibodies, antibody fragments, and next-generation biologics used in immune-oncology and many other applications.

In 2019, the company scaled this process up by implementing a ‘protein printing’ platform – that technology is said to combine the power of E. coli​ SoluPro with a synthetic biology platform for generation of high-diversity strain libraries and high-throughput screening assays to deliver titers of complex high quality biotherapeutic proteins.

Asset building

This year also saw Absci acquire two major assets.

In January 2021, it purchased Denovium, a company using deep learning AI to categorize and predict the behavior of proteins, while, in June, it acquired Totient, a biotech company that identifies fully-human antibodies from patients who demonstrate differentiated immune responses.

“The integration has been going great with both Denovium and Totient. Denovium, a leading edge deep learning company, gives us AI capabilities and Totient allows us to move further upstream in the development process. So instead of just doing drug discovery and cell line development, we are now able to do target discovery, we can take patient samples, and we can help de-orphan and discover brand new targets; we can go fully end-to-end from patient sample to drug in the clinic, and we want to be able to do this at a click of a button,”​ said McClain.

E. coli versus mammalian cells

The CEO said the throughput the company has, in terms of screening billions of different cell lines and drug candidates, would not be possible with mammalian cells. Moreover, the ease of engineering E. coli​ compares extremely favorably with mammalian cells, he noted.

“Additionally, from a cost of goods perspective, E. coli is far superior. There are also dramatic timeline savings. We worked on a COVID-19 antibody program. We had to develop a cell line for a monoclonal antibody and we were able to develop that cell line in 10 days. Normally, that would take you upwards of three to six months.

“So speed, costs, and the ability to rapidly discover brand new candidates and their associated cell lines is the reason why we went with E. coli over mammalian cells. We see E. coli as the future.”

And how critical is AI to drug development?

“We are on the forefront right now of seeing biology and artificial intelligence (AI) merge together. But, at the end of the day, you need the data in order to leverage AI. Once we have enough data we are going to be in a position where we truly can go fully in silico predicting the best drug candidates and the associated cell lines. We are a mission driven company, with patients always to the fore, and AI is going to allow us to get the best drugs to patients.”

Absci has nine active programs across seven partnerships. “Some of the companies that we work with are of the likes of Merck and Astellas Pharma. All nine programs have the option to license the technology,”​ said the CEO.

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