Nabla Bio, a Boston, Massachusetts based startup, announced a $11 million seed round on Monday. The company, founded in May 2020, is looking to enter the increasingly competitive space of antibody design, and manufacturing.
Nabla Bio, in essence, is an antibody design platform. The company is working with technology refined by Nabla Bio co-founder Surge Biswas while a graduate student at George Church’s lab at Harvard (Church is listed as another company co-founder). Frances Anastassacos, another co-founder, comes to Nabla Bio after completing her PhD in biological engineering, and after a stint at Flagship Pioneering, the VC firm behind Moderna.
Anastassacos and Biswas, the core leadership behind the company, are also a married couple.
Nabla Bio’s AI component is based on applying natural language processing algorithms to amino acids (if those building blocks are words, proteins are like sentences). Ultimately, Nabla Bio is capable of providing a holistic picture of certain antibodies, including including their biophysical properties. The science behind the platform has been tested in several published papers.
“Basically we have a way of expressing thousands or a million antibodies in a single tube, and then we have a way of tying that back to the DNA sequence that encodes that antibody,” Biswas told TechCrunch. “So what we can do is run a bunch of biophysical perturbations on that tube, and see which antibodies fare well under a particular test.”
This $11 million represents Nabla Bio’s first priced fundraising round (after an unannounced seed round led by Fifty Years). It was co-led by Khosla Ventures and Zetta Venture Partners, with participation from Fifty Years and Cantos Ventures.
The company’s thesis statement is reflective of a shift away from antibody discovery, and a focus on antibody design. That focus is meant to tackle an essential question when it comes to getting antibodies into the clinic: which ones are worth the effort of running expensive clinical trials?
Typically antibody candidates might be selected based on function or therapeutic potential. But often, there are certain biophysical properties (how stable are these antibodies? Will they actually hold up when we try to manufacture them?) that are overlooked, as some papers argue. Broadly, that information is called “developability.”
“We’re actually just in the first five years of developability being recognized as one of the main reasons antibodies are failing in the clinic,” said Anastassacos. “There currently isn’t really a platform dedicated to solving this problem.”
Nabla Bio’s platform, the founders argue, is suited to tackle that developability question and determine which antibodies meet certain biophysical requirements.
Nabla Bio remains singularly focused on designing one type of protein in particular: antibodies. There’s some larger trends that support a focus like this: global sales of monoclonal antibodies have grown faster than other biopharmaceuticals over the last five years, per one 2020 report from Bioprocess International Magazine.
Nabla Bio’s decision, says Biswas, came down to information gleaned from their partnerships with five pharma companies (the founders would not disclose which ones). Antibodies, he says, were the arena in which there was the most need, he said.
As for the fruits of those collaborations, Anastassacos says that one has matured into a “multi-target collaboration.”
“That’s just some evidence to say that they are finding value in the platform and they do want to keep using it,” she said.
That said, the company is far from the only one currently playing in the protein (and antibody) design space. Just last month for instance, Flagship Pioneering-backed Generate Biosciences announced a $370 million Series B round based on their own protein design platform – Generate Bio has several drugs in preclinical stages.
Biswas and Anastassacos argue this pool is big enough for more than one player to swim in, and that the company’s 50/50 focus on both computational and experimental aspects of protein design is powerful enough to set it apart in the future.
“We really intimately understand how AI is going to drive biology and vice versa,” Biswas argues.
Initially, Nabla Bio was designed to be an antibody design platform. Though, now the company’s aim isn’t just to design antibodies, it’s also keen to make them. Nabla Bio is building an end-to-end antibody creation platform, and the bulk of this funding will go towards building out that capability. The remainder will go towards improving Nabla’s platform and building out their team of seven employees.
*This article has been updated to include mention of Nabla Bio’s unannounced seed round led by Fifty Years.