After regional honors, AbSci looks for growth

Vancouver biotech firm hopes new partnerships, innovations pay off big

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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Before AbSci moved into elegant offices on the third floor of the Hudson Building in downtown Vancouver, founder Sean McClain began the company in the basement of the Portland State University’s business accelerator.

“We just bootstrapped this,” McClain said Friday. “I was working in this dungeon-basement lab for about 18 months to get the proof of concept done.”

That was before it officially launched in 2011. Since then, the biotechnology firm has landed millions in investment and even a $200,000 commitment from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office that helped land the firm in Clark County a year ago.

Earlier this week, AbSci was named the top startup-stage company in the region by Oregon Entrepreneurs Network. The firm has shown “game-changing” technology and potential to make a big economic splash in the region, organizers said.

McClain joked that winning at the gala event gives AbSci “street cred” with peers.

“It’s like the Oscars of the entrepreneurial community here,” he said, laughing. “It’s just a good networking event, and kind of a fun event to celebrate entrepreneurial achievement in all different industries and entrepreneurs.”

It is the second time AbSci has won at the event, making it one of the higher profile life science companies in the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area.

And life sciences is a coveted industry. The Columbia River Economic Development Council identified it as one of a five that will anchor Southwest Washington’s economy in the future.

Growth sciences

In an interview Friday, McClain said AbSci will look to grow soon through new business partnerships and some innovations.

Its headline product right now is a platform called SoluPro, which uses an engineered E. coli that quickly produces proteins and antibodies. Drugmakers pay a license for it, banking that rapid output will cut costs and increase efficiency.

Treatments that rely on the technology include those for cancer, diabetes and autoimmune disorders.

“We’ve overcome some large bottlenecks in the manufacturing process that allow us to drastically reduce the costs of goods, and the yields are very high in our system,” McClain said. “The best manufacturing plant out there for producing amino acids or proteins is living cells.”

In the works now, though, is a new product called downstream processing. In downstream processing, AbSci would use its expertise to come up with a streamlined way to make a drug, then license that method back to a pharmaceutical company.

“Once we develop that in-house for them, we then license it to them,” McClain said. He added that their downstream processing is still in testing phases, but he expected it to be a big revenue generator.

“I think it’s going to broaden the scope and bring in some new partners we may not have or will help add more value to existing partners, which is what we’ve seen. Our partners are really excited about this, as well,” he said.

Like the proteins sloshing in vats in the back of its offices, the company is growing. Since its arrival, the company has added six staffers, now employing 20. They hope to acquire more office space next door, too, and hire 15 more people.

That hiring spree is meant to meet new demands. AbSci has secured new business partners in the last six months, though McClain won’t say much except that they are large pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s just a really exciting time as we’re beginning to expand with new partnerships and new opportunities,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified where the company began. It has been corrected.