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Peter Thiel speaks at the New York Times DealBook conference on Nov. 1, 2018, in New York City.Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel has joined the board of AbCellera Biologics Inc. ahead of an expected Nasdaq IPO filing by the Canadian antibody therapy developer, whose work to find a COVID-19 treatment has captured global attention.

Mr. Thiel, who has backed several startups as they went public, is an existing investor in Vancouver-based AbCellera. He joins the startup’s board two months after it hired investment banks Credit Suisse Group AG, Stifel Financial Corp. and SVB Leerink as the lead underwriters for the Nasdaq initial public offering. His appointment comes a day after former RBC Global Asset Management chief executive officer John Montalbano joined the board, where he will chair the audit committee. AbCellera also said this week it had purchased Trianni Inc., a biotechnology company that uses genetically engineered mice to help discover new antibodies, for US$90-million in cash.

The Globe and Mail first reported in July that AbCellera, which uses a mix of complex technologies to unearth antibody-based drugs more quickly, cheaply and effectively than conventional methods, was considering an IPO. Its registration statement is expected to be made public on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission website within days.

AbCellera has already raised significant sums in 2020 on the strength of partnerships with some of the world’s largest drug companies to identify drug candidates for a range of ailments, including a deal with Eli Lilly and Co. to develop a treatment for the novel coronavirus.

In May, AbCellera secured $175.6-million in development funds from the federal government plus US$105-million in venture capital from leading global life-sciences investors.

AbCellera was spun out from the University of British Columbia’s interdisciplinary Michael Smith Laboratories – where CEO Carl Hansen ran the bioengineering group – in 2012. Using technology developed at the lab, AbCellera speeds up the process to isolate and identify antibodies created by humans to fight infections.

Its “antibody discovery engine” process involves passing blood samples from a person who has developed an immunity to a disease through a credit card-sized “microfluidic” device with hundreds of thousands of tiny chambers. Using artificial intelligence, it tests antibodies produced by cells in each chamber simultaneously, homing in on those that have the potential to be developed into drugs.

Within three days of receiving a blood sample from a recovered COVID-19 patient this spring, AbCellera isolated hundreds of antibody candidates for a drug. It cut that to 24 within three weeks and partnered with Eli Lilly to quickly produce a drug for coronavirus patients called bamlanivimab, which was authorized earlier this month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use on patients.

Mr. Thiel is known for his early investments in Facebook and co-founding electronic payment service provider PayPal Holdings Inc. In September, he took data-analytics firm Palantir Technologies Inc. public through a direct listing.

With files from Reuters

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