For Hummingbird Bioscience, the COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity for it to demonstrate its ability to rapidly discover and develop new drugs.
The Singapore-based biotech startup was in the process of developing two cancer antibodies, which were set to enter human clinical trials. It was not long, however, before the company was roped into developing an antibody that targets the coronavirus.
Hummingbird’s lab had the capacity to take it on as it was waiting on external partners for work related to the two cancer antibodies. The development of the COVID therapy, using its antibody discovery platform, was accelerated.
In a span of less than a year, the antibody Covid-19 mAb was developed and is now being tested in human clinical trials.
“What we’ve all seen in response to COVID has been a remarkable ability to accelerate development,” Hummingbird Bioscience co-founder and CEO Piers Ingram tells DealStreetAsia in an interview.
At the same time, the company’s two cancer antibodies – HMBD-001 and HMBD-002 – are also poised to enter clinical trials in the next few months, Ingram says.
“This is a huge milestone,” Ingram says. “The initiation of clinical trials is the graduation point for the company – from a pre-clinical company to a clinical company.”
Hummingbird Bioscience was founded in 2015 by research scientists Ingram and Jerome Boyd-Kirkup. Ingram is trained in systems biology and mathematics, while chief scientific officer Boyd-Kirkup is a molecular systems biologist.
The team used computational and systems biology to develop what it calls a Rational Antibody Discovery platform. It identifies key targets within diseased cells, and engineers molecules to target them to prevent the cell proteins from replicating.
Hummingbird Bioscience was started around the belief that they could develop data-driven, targeted, treatments for cancers where existing drugs proved ineffective.
Its first candidate, the antibody HMBD-001 targets HER3, a cell surface protein associated with several cancers, including colorectal, gastric, and lung. HMBD-002 is an antibody targeted at immune suppressor proteins in cancer or VISTA. The anti-HER3 and anti-VISTA antibodies are due to start clinical trials soon.
“There was all of this evidence that HER3 should be a phenomenally important drug target. And yet, when we looked at what people have done it didn’t seem to be very effective. And we wanted to understand why,” Ingram explains.
“We came up with some hypotheses about the challenges that these other programs had in terms of …how those antibodies affected that protein and we felt that we could do better if we could get something different.”
The antibody platform is “a discovery engine,” says Chik Wai Chiew, CEO of Heritas Capital, one of Hummingbird Bioscience’s investors, noting the company’s pipeline of therapies.
Still, drug development takes hefty amounts of money. Ingram estimates it typically about $10 million to $15 million per therapy, from the start of it identified as a candidate, through to starting clinical trials.
Hummingbird Bioscience has raised some $65 million so far. Its most recent fundraising round was an extended Series B in May last year that brought in $25 million, and a slate of new corporate investors from South Korea, in particular SK Holdings, the country’s third-largest company. The initial Series B round in 2019 was co-led by Mirae Asset Capital and GNTech Venture Capital, and included Wooshin Venture Investment.
Hummingbird Bioscience’s earlier investors were Heritas Capital, and SEED Capital, the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore.
“Fundraising is not easy. Nor is it a painful process. I think we’re very fortunate to have many healthcare specialist investors who really understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Ingram says. “Almost universally I find that the investors working in this space are really motivated by the right things – there’s a desire to push this industry forward.”
Ingram says he has preferred to work with investors who understand that healthcare and biotech space, “who deeply understand the risks and take very conscious decisions about what it is they’re involved in.”
Having products in the clinical stage of development could ease future fundraising efforts.
“It is much easier to raise funds as the programmes progress,” Ingram acknowledges. “There are still very, very clear returns, and I think there are many funds and investors who, as a strategy, prefer to focus only on clinical-stage programmes, and the number of investors who are comfortable investing in very early-stage programmes, at pre-clinical stage and concept stage, is far smaller.”
Investor interest in biotech
To be sure, the biotech sector has been attracting keen investor interest, amid a global pandemic that shone a spotlight on challenges in healthcare.
The sector has seen aggressive merger and acquisition activity, as big pharmaceutical firms seek access to novel therapies and technologies.
In a report, global consultancy PwC noted there was nearly $50 billion in healthcare M&A deals in the Asia Pacific last year. There were 976 deals in the pharmaceuticals and life sciences sector. Deal volume in this sector, particularly in the areas of oncology, cell and gene therapy, and next-generation biologics, is expected to drive M&A globally this year.
Dealmaking has already begun in earnest. In January, French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi said it will pay $1.45 billion for a UK-based, clinical-stage drug and vaccine developer Kymab.
In December, German pharmaceutical Boehringer Ingelheim said it will pay $1.4 billion to acquire a Swiss biotech company working on targeted cancer treatment. A month earlier, Merck & Co agreed to pay nearly $3 billion to acquire a San Diego-based biotech working on antibodies for blood cancers and solid tumours.