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Of Mice and Men: Kymab scurries up the biologics ladder

Using the pioneering Kymouse human antibody expression platform, Kymab are paving the way to a new era of antibody-based medicine. Already boasting two antibodies on their way to the clinic, Kymab’s investors are drawn to the platform’s breadth and potential, as 2020 promises to see a further four antibodies undergoing clinical trials. With distinguished investors such as the Wellcome trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation chipping into their recent $100 million series C financing round, CEO David Chiswell is confident that Kymab can become the next multibillion drug platform. Biotech and Money recently dropped in for a chat. Here are the twelve things we learned from him.

1. Kymouse is an exciting and fast new way of making antibody pharmaceuticals

Far more effective than other expression platforms, such as phage-based varieties, the kymouse platform also allows Kymab to choose vaccine candidates that will work better in humans than could previously have been done.

“We believe we have the fastest way to make the best human antibodies, through our kymouse human antibody expression platform. It’s quick, and we believe that any antibody we make will be the most potent antibody you can get against whatever target we’re after. That’s the basic core of what we do.”

2. The blockbuster potential of antibody-based medicine

The breadth and potential of this new technology is seriously impressive. Mouse based human antibody platforms have produced 7 marketed human antibodies, with a further 13 in phase 3 clinical trials, as opposed to only 3 (with 5 in phase 3) produced in a similar timeframe of ca. 25 years by phage platforms. This is not just exciting for antibody medicine in general, but has huge implications for Kymab as a company.

“I think this technology has blockbuster potential, because there are pretty much an unlimited number of targets you can point your antibodies at, and any one of those has the potential to become a 10 billion dollar drug. The strength of Kymab is that we are ambitious enough to want to make a real portfolio of products. We won’t be happy with one success: we want multiple successes”

We asked David whether his company was based on a ‘multiple shots on goal’ approach:

“Absolutely. But you have to have the right shooter. Having shots on goal is all very well, but if it’s me taking them that’s not very good – I’d rather have Messi take them!”

3. Could Kymab be the next Celgene?

David isn’t looking to do things by halves, with sights set on becoming a multibillion dollar entity in the future. We asked what his approach was:

“For me, and for the board and investors, success is selling products. We need this to become a proper, grownup pharmaceutical company. We’re taking the Gilead/Celgene model approach: that evolution from a pipeline company through to an actual product company.”

Does this master plan involve acquisition?

“To be honest you can never tell whether or not you’re on a strategy where it is inevitable that someone will end up buying you. But that is not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is become the 100 billion dollar company that Gilead and Celgene are now, which means having your own pipeline, and enough sales to be able to invest in your pipeline.”

4. Traditional VCs may shy away from this ambition

What kind of investors are drawn to David’s sights for Kymab’s future?

“Being honest, this model of company growth requires a large amount of capital. A traditional VC would have difficulty seeing the way to their profits with a company requiring so much capital. I’m not knocking the VC model because it works, but if you start talking about platforms and wanting to build companies, then that comes with large cheques needed. That tends to be a big negative for traditional VCs, because maybe they’d rather put 50 million to work in 10 companies rather than 500 million in one company. And I can understand that.”

5. Kymab’s prestigious investors recognise the potential of this exciting technology and are prepared to invest in the long term

“…But our seed investors look at it the other way round: if you have real potential build a company which could go public in 2020 and could have a pipeline to justify a significant valuation, then they see that as a derisked strategy, because if we have a product failure it isn’t the company that fails.

Woodford, Merlin and the Wellcome Trust not only buy into our vision of building a big self-sustaining company, but actually have the fundraising and mentality to want to participate in that throughout. They obviously want to make money, but they take a more long term view, because they think they’ll make more money in that case.

When it comes to the Gates Foundation I think that’s slightly different. In their world they’re always trying to make vaccines against difficult organisms like Malaria and HIV. No ones success in those areas has been great, perhaps in large part because there is no good assay in testing your vaccine candidate in anything like humans before you go to humans. What we have is a mouse with a complete human antibody repertoire, where you can use that mouse as an assay system for all sorts of vaccine candidates as a surrogate for a human, so they saw us as a good investment.”

6. It pays it build good relationships with China

Professor Allan Bradley, founder of Kymab, has always believed in the potential of China, and Kymab’s willingness to collaborate with Chinese companies has brought in significant partnerships.

“Allan Bradley is the scientific founder of Kymab, and he’s always had the view that China is the next big thing, so at Kymab we’ve always strived to build strategies that include China integrally – not just as an add-on at the end. Allan and his team went and talked to a number of Chinese companies, many of which we’re still talking to. But Hepalink and Ori came forward very quickly and said ‘look we want to invest, we just want to be a straight forward series C.’”

We asked David if life science companies are missing a trick by not looking towards China more:

“I think we just all need to be aware that there is both money and a desire to invest over there. I think it’s a source of capital that is under tapped over here.”

7. No urgent need to go public

We asked David if going public was on the horizon for Kymab anytime soon.

“It’s inevitable at some point. But we should never make it so it’s essential we go at a particular time. The stars have to align: we have to look like a public company. And frankly we don’t look like a public company now. We don’t have an antibody in the clinic.

In 2020 we’ll have 6 antibodies in the clinic, and we’ll have data from some of them. That’s more like a public company. But then the markets may not be receptive to any biotech then… So our strategy has to be that we’d like to go public but don’t have to go public.”

8. European life science ambition

Kymab’s ambition is admirable, in a time when most European life science companies either move stateside or are bought out before hitting the bigtime. We asked David why he thinks Kymab will succeed where others have failed:

“Well for starters we shouldn’t say it’s a failure to get bought out for a billion dollars or more…

Maybe a few years back we didn’t have enough management around, but we do now. Many companies now have CEOs that have probably done it before. As for the science, there’s no question that the country has the science to do it. Maybe we lack ambition…?

I think the key thing is that has changed in my time is that NASDAQ in particular has become much more international. Investors in NASDAQ don’t worry at the moment where the company comes from, they just worry about if they can make money out of it. I think the listing platform matters less now than it did. And likewise your corporate location matters less in terms of which exchange you want to go for. You have to sell your story to a global audience nowadays.”

9. What does the immediate future hold for Kymab

We asked David what milestones we should be looking out for as Kymab continues to expand:

“We will start our first clinical trials next year. In fact there’s been a recent press release about our first programme which is showing some really good data in prevention of graft-versus-host disease, and that’s been published at ASH. As we move closer to the clinic we can disclose what our antibodies against and why we’re interested in them so by the time we get to 3 years out we should have quite an advanced and public clinical pipeline.”

10. Bringing value to the company

The issue of whether or not to build partnerships or put them off until later is surely one of the questions that life science CEOs will lose the most sleep over. David shared some nuggets of wisdom on how to best build value in a company:

“Simplistically the more clinical data you have the higher the value. One lesson learned from the past is trying not to bring in a partner too soon. You don’t want to be selling a share of a product before you’ve given it time to mature. So with our investors, we are deliberately saying we’re talking to companies, getting companies interested, but not doing deals until when we think the value is right for bringing value back to Kymab.

But there’s always a trade-off. For example our first product could go anywhere in auto-immune disease. So you need a fair bit of oomph to really explore that space. Likewise you can sometimes do deals in immuno-oncology quite early if you’re in the right space in it. There is an advantage to having an early partnership to explore bigger markets.

It’s about getting the balance right; it’s about being mature enough to know when to do the deal and, more importantly, when not to – which is more often than anything of a case of whether you have the money not to do the deal!”

11. Don’t dilute your finances!

We asked David which common mistakes he saw life science CEOs committing the most. His first response was to proclaim that mistakes are never made: you always do what is best at the time. But there was one thing that he singled out…

“I would say that the phrase which kills most of us is non-dilutive financing. Non-dilutive financing is when you do a deal with big pharma, and sure as hell it’s diluting because you’ve diluted all your control! If we could forget that phrase, we’d be in a much better position!”

12. Challenges in healthcare

As a CEO in the healthcare sector, what challenges occupy David’s mind the most?

“I think it’s a two edged sword actually. From an individual point of view, we’re making fantastic advances in medicine. Take immuno-oncology: really huge leaps forwards.

But from a company point of view, every time someone does something that helps another 10% of people survive myeloma or something, your products have to leap over that. So you really are pushing efficacy, and the bar keeps getting raised. This is great from one point of view, but scary from another!”

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