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Thank you, E. coli: Vancouver’s Absci uses bacteria to make ‘exciting’ drug discoveries

10 year old company moves into east Vancouver headquarters, with grand opening this week

By , Columbian Innovation Editor
Published:
14 Photos
Founder and CEO Sean McClain poses next to a mural in a lab at Absci Corp., headquartered in Vancouver, during a tour on Monday. The drug-discovery company, founded in Portland in 2011, moved to Vancouver in 2016. (Randy L.
Founder and CEO Sean McClain poses next to a mural in a lab at Absci Corp., headquartered in Vancouver, during a tour on Monday. The drug-discovery company, founded in Portland in 2011, moved to Vancouver in 2016. (Randy L. Rasmussen for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The first thought to run through Sean McClain’s head was something along the lines of: “We did it.”

It was July 22 at the Nasdaq headquarters in New York. For hours, McClain had been in and out of meetings and interviews, awaiting the moment. The 32-year-old entrepreneur, the founder and CEO of Absci Corp., had just witnessed his company’s initial public offering.

Luckily for McClain, he was between interviews with national and international media when he saw the first trade. A stock trader who was analyzing the offerings and bids announced to him, his dad and his colleagues that Absci’s stock price exceeded the initial $16 price and was first sold for $21.

“I remember hugging my dad and getting a bug in my eye,” McClain said.

The moment immediately gave validation and a literal price of the worth of the company that McClain had built ever since he came up with the idea for Absci in college. The company now has 230 employees and is valued at roughly $2 billion.

“We did it,” he said as he sat in his office at the new Absci headquarters in the Columbia Tech Center on Monday, reflecting on the experience. “It was an emotional day that was 10 years in the making.”

WHY E. COLI?

Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals and can sometimes cause food poisoning. In drug manufacturing, they can be used to create proteins and antibodies to fight diseases.

About Absci

A biotech company, www.absci.com

Headquarters: 18105 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver.

Founded: 2011.

Founder: Sean McClain, 32.

Employees: About 230.

IPO: July 22.

Estimated value: $2 billion.

On Tuesday, Absci will hold the grand opening for its new headquarters at 18105 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., which holds the company that’s now gained a world stage with its IPO.

New space

Perhaps the first thing to catch a visitor’s eye upon entering McClain’s office is the taxidermic honey badger on a table near his desk. Purchased by his wife at an oddities shop in Portland, the honey badger represents the tenacity that has gotten McClain through the difficulties of starting Absci and its rise to become publicly traded.

“My wife says that it’s my spirit animal,” he said. “It can get bitten by a king cobra and pass out from the venom, then wake up and start eating it. It has grit. It keeps going.”

McClain came up with the idea for Absci while studying biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Arizona. He became “obsessed” with synthetic biology and the idea that he could create the first antibodies from harnessing E. coli cells, a process that wasn’t in use in any commercial way at the time, he said.

He graduated a year early with the idea fresh in his mind and convinced his then-fiancée to move back into McClain’s mother’s home in Sherwood, Ore., while he put his money into the business with an investment from his father.

Absci, founded in Portland in 2011, determines the process that produces the best drug, such as insulin, from E. coli cells and then sells that system. With about 10 employees, Absci moved to Vancouver in 2016 with the help of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, which helped apply for a $200,000 grant from Gov. Jay Inslee’s Strategic Reserve Fund.

The growing company went under the spotlight during the pandemic, as did many other bioengineering companies. Absci, which was also helping drug companies develop vaccines for COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, earned a back-to-back surge of investments for $65 million and $125 million. Earlier this year, the company moved into its new headquarters.

McClain stood in the small entrance room to Absci’s laboratories as he changed into his white lab coat. Dotted lights shone on the polished aluminum that runs up entire walls and covers the ceiling overhead.

“It’s kind of like Star Trek,” he said. “It’s like going into hyper-speed.”

The building’s design, shaped by Bora Architects with McClain’s help, is a way to attract top talent in the bioengineering industry, he said.

Inside the lab, Keerthi Prasad Venkataramanan, principal scientist at Absci, oversaw a row of small, clear vessels that held murky brown liquid. The liquid contained billions of E. coli cells fermenting; the company was working on a process to create a drug used for brain tumors.

In a single experiment, Absci can screen billions of organisms to see what can make the best, most refined version of a drug. That process is then sold to Absci’s customers, including Big Pharma. Eighty percent of the company’s work is in oncology: the prevention and treatment of cancer.

“We are changing the world one protein at a time,” said Venkataramanan, who was attracted to Absci for its industry- and world-changing opportunities.

Back outside the lab, the office culture exudes a Silicon Valley tech atmosphere. A few of the employees’ dogs roam about as workers ride push scooters down the hallways. There are pingpong tables, large windows to a pickleball court outside and, in the common area, a large golden gong hanging from a stand. It’s used to celebrate something positive in the company.

That culture is something McClain values deeply, he said, as a way to attract top-tier talent.

Aiming higher

There’s a watershed moment that’s in the crosshairs for Absci and McClain. It’s his ultimate goal: achieving a marriage of artificial intelligence and bioengineering called “fully in silico.”

Absci isn’t just using microorganisms to come up with processes for creating drugs. It’s also using artificial intelligence to record, analyze and process the data from all of its experiments.

“We want to become the ‘Google Index’ search of drug discovery and biomanufacturing,” McClain said.

That will be achieved only when the company has enough data from its E. coli cells to predict how they will behave while creating drugs. With that type of robust database, Absci workers can use algorithms and software to create their drug-making processes instead of relying on trial and error. It will dramatically accelerate the company’s work, McClain said.

When might they reach that moment? McClain said he hopes it’s “in the near future.”

“That’s as specific as I can get,” he said with a laugh.

McClain recalls sitting in the back of a Town Car headed to Times Square on the day of the IPO. It was his first time there. Seeing the large screen that showed the Absci logo was an emotional experience.

As the market came to a close that day, McClain and his contingent threw their hats into the air. At the same time, his colleagues at Absci’s Vancouver headquarters did the same.

But the moment wasn’t just about the celebrating, McClain said. It was the beginning of the next 10 years, when he’ll lead the company to bigger deals, discoveries and perhaps his “fully in silico” moment.

“We have something exciting here,” he said.

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