AbCellera Biologics Inc was the first to co-develop an antibody therapeutic for COVID-19, it was the first to receive FDA Emergency Use Authorisation and by 2021 had prevented more than 22,000 hospital admissions and 11,000 deaths in the US alone. This case-study has been used by researchers to demonstrate how academic scientist-entrepreneurs can respond effectively to a global emergency.
The paper “Rapid response through the entrepreneurial capabilities of academic scientists” has been published by Nature Nanotechnology.
Impact of entrepreneurial capabilities pre-spinout
The researchers identified that the strategy taken by the scientist-entrepreneur before formation of an academic spinout can make a significant impact on the success of the academic spin-out.
This work is rooted in dynamic capabilities theory – defined as “the firm’s ability to integrate, build, and reconfigure internal and external competences to address rapidly changing environments” (David J. Teece, Gary Pisano, and Amy Shuen).
Teece proposes that entrepreneurial businesses are those that have the corporate agility to:
- Sense and shape opportunities and threats
- Seize opportunities
- Maintain competitiveness through enhancing, combining, protecting, and, when necessary, reconfiguring the business enterprise’s intangible and tangible assets.
The researchers observe that individual scientists that also possess unique sensing and shaping and seizing capabilities arguing that path-dependent, pre-formation decisions taken by scientist–entrepreneurs have significant influence on the responsiveness of a spinout to global challenge.
Case-study: Carl Hensen academic-scientist-entrepreneur behind AbCellera
In the case of AbCellera, it was the founder Carl Hansen’s dynamic capabilities that enabled the value chain to discover the antibody bamlanivimab against the SaRS-CoV-2 virus in just 90 days; resulting in the development of an FDA emergency-use-authorized therapeutic in eight months.
These dynamic capabilities included:
- Technology-market matching – Hansen chose the antibody market for his microfluidic technology long before firm formation, anticipating the value his antibody discovery and manufacturing platforms could create in responding rapidly to emergent infectious diseases.
- Strategic timing of intellectual property protection can enable rapid response. The researchers found evidence of Hansen claiming and protecting the invention through two relevant patents, filed in 2010, two years before firm formation and ten years before they were utilised in the rapid response to COVID-19. These capabilities and intellectual property provided credibility for later fundraising and partnerships.
- Mentoring members of the founding team pre-formation – Hansen was mentored by Prof. Stephen Quake who pioneered the development of the microfluidics instrumentation that Hansen later acquired, de-risking this investment. Hansen also mentored researchers from his lab who later became co-founders and early employees of AbCellera.
- Strategic incubation within the university environment – investors typically want to recoup their funding in 3-5 years, so delaying the formation of the company to shorten the time to commercial viability improves the timeline for investors. The other benefit is that this extended incubation enabled Hansen to concentrate on the scientific development with lower overheads and a highly skilled workforce.
- Changing risk and reward models – Hansen managed the profound risk that many nano-medicine firms face over long time horizons by focusing on a partnership-based revenue generation model that harnessed AbCellera’s combination wet-lab/AI antibody discovery platform. This generated revenue and attracted federal funding.
It was this end-to-end antibody discovery platform that enabled AbCellera’s rapid pandemic response. The platform serves as their main revenue driver through over 100 partnerships with small biotechnology firms as well as large established pharmaceutical companies, most notably Eli Lilly, partners in AbCellera’s rapid pandemic response.
Academic scientists have a key role in solving emerging challenges and increasing economic productivity. The researchers make a number of recommendations of how policy can be improved to support the capabilities of these scientist-entrepreneurs and enable a rapid response to pressing global health and humanitarian crises.
‘Rapid response through the entrepreneurial capabilities of academic scientists’, Andrew Park, Azadeh Goudarzi, Pegah Yaghmaie, Varkey Jon Thomas & Elicia Maine, Nature Nanotechnology volume 17, pages 802–807 (2022).
Post suggested by Elicia Maine