BigHat, cherry-picking opportunities amid stormy market, pens pact with Merck & Co.

While other biotechs are culling staff and programs to stay afloat, BigHat Biosciences has remained dry under its ever-expanding umbrella, announcing a multiprotein deal with Merck & Co. while growing its team 30% since the summer.

In a short amount of time, BigHat execs have realized there is a wide landscape of opportunities available to them, CEO and co-founder Mark DePristo, Ph.D., told Fierce Biotech in an interview.

“We’re trying to cherry-pick the right ones to pursue,” DePristo explained, adding that the Merck pact is one of the few deep collaborations the biotech has in mind.

Under the terms of the agreement announced this morning, Merck will use BigHat’s AI-enabled platform to optimize proteins for up to three drug discovery programs. The teams have already started working on the first program, although the indication—like the financial terms of the deal—remains undisclosed for now.

Merck and BigHat are still working to determine what other two areas they will enter, DePristo said. “There’s no real area restriction,” because BigHat’s platform is applicable across many indications, the CEO explained.

The company’s tech, dubbed Milliner in a tip of the hat to traditional headwear makers, is a machine learning-guided antibody discovery and development platform designed to quickly create breakthrough therapies for hard-to-treat diseases.

“This agreement with BigHat expands Merck’s strategy of applying AI/ML across our drug discovery capabilities,” Juan Alvarez, Ph.D., vice president of biologics discovery for Merck Research Laboratories, said in a Nov. 29 release.

The Merck deal moves BigHat closer to its goal of three to five deep collaborations with leading biopharmas to complement its internal preclinical pipeline, Elizabeth Schwarzbach, BigHat’s chief business officer, told Fierce.

The pact isn’t BigHat’s first partnership with a Big Pharma, however. At the beginning of the year, the biotech completed the initial stage of a research collaboration with Amgen earlier than expected. The partnership, in which BigHat is working to develop a lead panel of VHH antibodies, remains ahead of schedule, Schwarzbach said.

The rapid speed at which the Amgen collaboration is progressing isn’t an anomaly for BigHat. Since July, when the California biotech raised a $75 million series B round, BigHat has doubled its platform capacity from 400 designs a week to 800, according to Peyton Greenside, Ph.D., BigHat co-founder and chief scientific officer. The company recently added antibody-drug conjugates to its platform, citing the drug class’ high potential in areas like oncology.

“One of the reasons we're excited for additional partnerships is because it allows us to pursue different design challenges and different kinds of mixtures and antibody modalities to really help figure out where our impact is greatest,” Greenside said.   

“There's multiple advanced conversations ongoing with wonderful potential partners,” DePristo added. “We're just excited to get more people under the BigHat.”   

Partnerships are key for the biotech so it can move the needle and isn’t forced to shelve opportunities due to logistics, the CEO continued.

While DePristo acknowledged the hardships many biotech contemporaries currently face, he said BigHat has been able to weather the storm for many reasons, including the company’s maturation that has occurred in parallel with increasing interest in the AI market. BigHat is also laser-focused on a small set of activities, Greenside said, such as building and streamlining its tech. 

The company, which has enough capital to operate for the next few years without requiring any additional fundraising, is hiring quickly, DePristo said. Since its series B in July, BigHat has welcomed 10 new employees, a move that has expanded its team by almost 30%. The company is currently conducting a search for someone to head up its drug development.