[INTERVIEW] ABL Bio has grown from go-getter to go-to company
SAN DIEGO — For ABL Bio CEO Lee Sang-hoon, this year’s BIO International Convention (BIO USA) is totally different from what it used to be three years ago.
“Back then, I was always the one carrying a backpack, busily visiting booths of other foreign biopharmaceutical firms to promote ABL Bio,” Lee said. “But now, we get calls from them and have already set appointments with a few of them in advance.”
The event that really changed ABL Bio’s global standing was a technology transfer deal worth around $1.06 billion that it inked with Paris-based health care company Sanofi in January for ABL301, a treatment candidate for degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson’s disease that is currently undergoing preclinical trials.
ABL Bio gave Sanofi the exclusive rights to develop and market the drug globally. ABL Bio is in charge of taking preclinical and Phase 1 clinical trials, while Sanofi will handle the rest.
Perhaps the most surprising part was the $75 million up-front payment the Korean company received from Sanofi: the largest up-front payment that a Korean venture has ever received for a licensing deal.
Companies usually avoid paying large sums in up-front payments, since the success rate of developing a new drug stands at less than 10 percent.
Established in 2016, ABL Bio is a Pangyo, Gyeonggi-based drug maker that develops immuno-oncology therapies for degenerative brain diseases using its own technology platform, Grabody. It has signed a few licensing deals with various global companies so far, including Sanofi, Boston-based Compass Therapeutics, Seoul-based Yuhan and Beijing-based CStone Pharmaceuticals.
It’s considered a win-win process as larger firms could license a new technology or obtain a license for distribution, while smaller companies can profit from licensing out their technology.
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with CEO Lee on June 14 at the BIO USA 2022 in San Diego to hear more about the company's journey after the big Sanofi deal.
Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. You mentioned the situation now is different from how it was three years ago. How?
A. It’s my first offline BIO USA in three years. Back then, I was always the one who was busy visiting booths of other companies to promote ABL Bio. Of course, we signed deals then, too, but mostly with small companies.
But after the deal with Sanofi, everyone knows who we are and they show deeper interest in our technologies. And now they don’t need to verify our capabilities as cautiously as they used to, because the deal with Sanofi already proved it to some extent.
ABL Bio came to the BIO USA for business meetings without opening our own booth, but we have received requests from more than 100 companies this year. We narrowed that down to 30.
Has there been any further process with ABL301? Do you have other drugs that are waiting to start clinical trials?
ABL301 is set to start Phase 1 clinical trials at the end of the year. As the CEO, I'm hoping to announce some kind of good news in the second half.
Also, two other candidates, ABL101 and ABL103, are expected to enter trials next year. ABL105, an anticancer drug candidate targeting solid tumors, is expected to start Phase 1 clinical trials soon by Yuhan. Yuhan signed a licensing deal for the candidate in 2018.
We aim to have at least two candidates that start clinical trials every year.
Were there any meetings with companies [at BIO USA] that could potentially be the next Sanofi?
I can’t reveal specific names, but yes, we are in talks with a few big pharmaceutical companies for future licensing deals. For some of them, we held meetings during the online J.P. Morgan HealthCare Conference and met them again at BIO USA for further discussion.
There is a big global firm that contacted us suddenly [at the BIO USA] and just recently started discussions. The biggest difference in the process is that we do not really visit [other companies] now, but they visit us. I guess our technologies are highly regarded by them now.
You previously said ABL Bio has enough cash to consider a merger and acquisition [M&A]. How is that going?
An M&A is not something we can do in just one or two years. License deals and acquisitions are two different stories. When global companies make acquisitions, the most important factor they consider is whether the smaller firms have good enough candidates that produced meaningful results in Phase 1 or 2 clinical trials. They are essentially betting that they can successfully conduct Phase 3 clinical trials after they require the smaller companies.
In that way, I do think that ABL Bio needs more time. Maybe in about five years, if we have a good, meaningful candidate that has reliable Phase 2 clinical trials results, then we could be one of the considerations for them.
But being acquired by a larger company is not the only way to survive. What we could do in the meantime is build up our reputation in the global market by signing more licensing deals. We currently hired Kim Eun-kyung, who has working experience in Bristol Myers Squibb and Novartis, as a new head for our clinical trial team.
ABL Bio’s business is currently focused on selling drug substances with good potential to big pharmaceutical companies. Do you have plans to conduct clinical trials by yourself so you can keep the full right to distribute?
ABL Bio is still a company focused on research. We currently do not have enough money or capabilities to independently proceed with Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials. That process really needs a cautious approach, as failure could cause serious trouble and even bankruptcy. Of course, [being able to distribute independently] is the ultimate goal of ABL, but finding the right timing is very crucial.
Many big Korean conglomerates, including Lotte, are making massive investments in the biopharmaceutical industry. What’s your thought on this?
I think this is a good phenomenon. For Korean biopharmaceutical giants, their business sectors can be largely divided into three directions: Samsung Biologics and Lotte push for the contract manufacturing organization (CMO) sector, Samsung Bioepis and Celltrion focus on biosimilars, and other drug makers like us develop new drugs.
CMO is profitable, and large Korean firms earn a lot of money with it. It would be great if the companies use the money in the new drug development sector, though it is not an easy decision to make. It is for sure a positive signal that more big companies are entering the biopharmaceutical industry.
Any closing thoughts you want to deliver to the industry?
The financial situations are overall very bad, regardless of smaller biotechnology companies or big pharmaceutical firms. But companies should overcome this by developing better technologies.
I came to Korea in 2013, and looking back on the past, the biopharmaceutical industry in Korea has been developing rapidly. The only sad part is that companies are being just too hasty and expecting fruition too quickly. The industry should become more mature.
The term "mature" means we need to find a balance among the growth of sectors like CMO, biosimilars and new drug development. The growth of just one sector cannot be the solution.
BY SARAH CHEA [email@example.com]