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A Vancouver biotechnology firm whose work to find a treatment for COVID-19 has thrust it into the global spotlight has raised US$105-million from leading life sciences investors.

AbCellera Biologics Inc. said it raised the funds from a group led by U.S. early-stage financiers OrbiMed and DCVC Bio, and backed by Viking Global Investors, Silicon Valley billionaire investor Peter Thiel, Founders Fund, University of Minnesota and Presight Capital. Also participating is drug giant Eli Lilly and Co., which is partnering with AbCellera to develop a treatment for the novel coronavirus, with a goal of starting clinical trials in July.

It is the second financial boost this month for AbCellera, which has partnered with several of the world’s largest drug companies, as well as the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, to identify dozens of drug candidates for ailments ranging from cancer to pain infectious diseases using its technology.

The company, spun out from the University of British Columbia’s interdisciplinary Michael Smith Laboratories in 2012, secured a US$175.6-million commitment from the federal government this month to fund its development. AbCellera has also received millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to explore new treatments for infectious diseases.

AbCellera chief executive officer and co-founder Carl Hansen said the company is not a drug developer so much as a company that uses a combination of sophisticated technologies to unearth antibody-based drugs faster, cheaper and more effectively than conventional methods, building on work pioneered at UBC, which has a financial interest in the startup.

“We were building this at UBC for many years and decided we could … [create] what we believed would be best-in-world technology for doing a deep search of natural immune systems,” said Dr. Hansen, who previously ran the lab’s bioengineering group.

While humans produce antibodies to fight infections, isolating and identifying those that work from the vast number that don’t is a lengthy process that can last years. AbCellera speeds that up to a period of weeks or months by using its “antibody discovery engine,” passing blood samples from a person who has developed an immunity to a disease through a credit card-sized “microfluidic” device.

The device has hundreds of thousands of microscopic chambers, similar to technology used to make integrated circuits. Using artificial intelligence technologies, it tests antibodies produced by cells in each of the chambers simultaneously to zero in on which ones have potential to be developed into a drug.

For example, within three days of receiving a single blood sample from a recovered COVID-19 patient this spring – the company had been working on a simulated pandemic response as part of a DARPA research project when the real one happened – the company zeroed in on hundreds of antibody candidates for a drug. Three weeks later, it was down to 24.

AbCellera and Eli Lilly quickly reached a partnership deal and are now in the final stages of preparing an “investigational new drug” submission to health regulators with hopes of getting their first human dosing trials under way this summer. They are one of several groups around the world in a race to develop a vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19.

“You could work in science and technology your entire life and not have an opportunity to do work as important on the world stage, when there is such an intense and urgent need for success,” said Dr. Hansen, an Edmonton native.

The cash flow-positive company, which has doubled in size every year since 2015 and is believed to generate roughly US$30-million in revenue, plans to use the funding proceeds to increase its 140-person ranks by 100 people and build research and development and manufacturing facilities. Dr. Hansen said the company does not plan to become a drug developer itself but rather to partner with “the entire industry and share in the success.”

But DCVC Bio managing partner John Hamer said, “I think over the course of the lifetime of [AbCellera] they could definitely have aspirations to build their own drugs and become a fully integrated pharmaceutical company,” which has historically been lacking in Canada.

Editor’s note: (May 27, 2020) A Report on Business story on Wednesday incorrectly said Vancouver biotechnology firm AbCellera Biologics Inc. is working to find a vaccine for COVID-19. In fact, it is working to develop a treatment for the disease. The online version of this story has been corrected.

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