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AbSci’s growth, expansion keeps pace

Vancouver biotech firm's office space set up for upcoming round of hiring

By , Columbian business reporter
Published: September 20, 2019, 6:05am
6 Photos
Fox Avery, an intern, monitors a fermentation process at the AbSci labs on Tuesday morning. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian)
Fox Avery, an intern, monitors a fermentation process at the AbSci labs on Tuesday morning. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Biotechnology company AbSci is wrapping up a substantial expansion of its downtown Vancouver headquarters, nearly doubling the size of the office and setting the company up for a round of hiring that is expected to grow its workforce by nearly 50 percent by the end of the year.

It’s the third major change to the company’s headquarters in its eight-year history, and it follows a now-familiar pattern of growth outpacing available space.

AbSci previously occupied about half of the third floor of The Hudson building at 101 E. Sixth St., with the space split between its offices and its lab. Now it occupies nearly the entire floor. Office operations have all been moved to the new space, freeing up the old office area for an expansion of the lab.

According to CEO Sean McClain, the latest move was prompted not only by staff growth, but by customer growth. Preparations for the expansion began about nine months ago, after it became clear that AbSci was about to run out of lab space for new clients.

“At the start of the third quarter, we were fully at capacity,” McClain said.

Early years

AbSci is a synthetic biology company that specializes in engineering organisms to produce proteins and antibodies used in biotheraputic medical treatments.

The company’s primary platform, SoluPro, uses a genetically modified form of E. coli bacteria to produce medical substances such as insulin. AbSci licenses it as a tool for pharmaceutical companies to affordably mass-produce medical compounds.

The company launched in 2011, initially in Portland State University’s business accelerator. After outgrowing its first two locations in Portland, AbSci signed a three-year agreement with the Port of Vancouver in late 2015 to lease a portion of the former Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay at the port-owned Terminal 1 site.

AbSci backed out of that deal in August 2016, citing a need to find a longer-term home with more room for growth. The company’s staff had swelled from six employees to 14 during the prior year, and officials anticipated adding another 20 to 30 jobs in the following five years.

But the company kept its sights set on Vancouver, and later that same month announced that it would move to The Hudson building, with the build-out of its new lab financed by a $200,000 commitment from Gov. Jay Inslee’s Strategic Reserve Fund.

Growth forecast

AbSci’s growth appears to have kept pace with the rate it predicted in 2016; three years later, its staff has grown to 30 employees. Another 14 positions are expected to be added by the end of the year, McClain said.

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The biggest share of new hires will be technical staff, McClain said, but the company is also recruiting in the business development and marketing fields, as well as filling out its executive team.

The company is also currently raising the last of its Series D capital, McClain said, and the cash infusion is intended to power an aggressive growth phase in the next two years.

The current expansion was intended to serve the company’s needs for at least those two years, McClain said, although he’s already starting to think the company may outgrow yet another home faster than expected.

There’s no more space on the third floor, so further expansion will require a more strategic approach, McClain said, but he said his team is happy where they are and he has no intention of leaving Vancouver.

“Our hope and our goal is to stay in The Hudson building,” he said. “I want (Vancouver) to be the next biotech hub.”

Biotechnology opportunities

The majority of the AbSci’s customers are pharmaceutical companies seeking a means to scale up production. Drug manufacturers often discover new medical compounds through expensive research and development, McClain said, but they often don’t have a cost-effective means of producing them at scale.

That’s when they turn to AbSci, McClain said. The company will work to adapt its “base chassis” – its original modified organism platform – to produce the new molecule cheaply and in larger quantities, and the drug manufacturer can license the customized version.

“We engineer an organism to make that product for them,” McClain said. “(We’re) engineering organisms just like a software engineer would program software.”

Insulin production has been one of AbSci’s biggest markets so far, McClain said, but he expects more of the company’s future growth to be in the field of next-generation biotheraputics — non-standard antibodies that are difficult to manufacture.

In this context, “current generation” biotheraputics refers to standard antibodies that the human body uses to fight off viruses, McClain said, or versions of those antibodies that have been modified to more effectively target certain diseases. Next-generation biotheraputics are more heavily engineered and diverge further from naturally-occurring proteins.

“Next-gen ones, your body doesn’t make anything remotely close to that,” he said. “They’re specifically engineered to have some pretty cool properties to them.”

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