Capella Bio harnesses a virtual global team to a targeted antibody R&D strategy

Don't look for Capella Bioscience to try and compete with anyone in terms of staff size and facilities.

Steve Holmes

The year-old, London-based biotech fledgling is operated by one full-timer--Chief Operating Officer Steve Holmes--aligned with a trio of investors/advisers who have all known each other for years, three CROs and two academic group collaborators split between the U.S. and the U.K. The venture investors have now put up a $15.7 million A round to fund a lineup of preclinical programs aimed at cherry-picking one very promising antibody that can be taken into clinical development in a couple of years.

Over the past year, Holmes and his partners have been sussing out the potential of new antibodies that are being aimed at some hard targets. Antibodies, of course, are not new in biotech. And Capella isn't claiming the creation of any radical new antibody platform tech.

"Antibody development can be routine," says Holmes, a veteran of Domantis, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Kymab. The big opportunity is finding the right target, complete with the kind of biomarkers and genetic profiles that can clearly illuminate commercial potential at an early stage of development.

"The target is the key," says the COO of the virtual biotech, "not the technology for getting there."

Holmes is working with three key venture figures: Raj Parekh with Advent Life Sciences, Don Drakeman, who co-founded Medarex and Genmab before joining Advent, and Kevin Johnson, a partner at Medicxi Ventures, made up of the life sciences team at Index, which recently split from the tech group to focus on biotech. Johnson's background includes his own work in antibodies, including a stint at Cambridge Antibody Technology, or CAT, which was acquired by AstraZeneca ($AZN).

Advent, Medicxi and Osage University Partners put up the funds.

In many ways, Capella is a great, perhaps extreme, example of the kind of R&D work that Medicxi--which just completed a $230 million fund--likes to invest in. The team is skeptical of the showy, $100-million-plus megarounds that have become popular in biotech on both sides of the Atlantic, preferring to stick with lean-and-mean biotechs/projects run by experienced execs sharing relationships that can extend back decades. Familiarity with the science is given a premium, all ambitious development efforts are considered hard and risky and if something doesn't work, they're quick to get out and go hunt up something new. Overhead tends to stay tight and low, if not semiclaustrophobic. It helps that the academic collaborators in San Diego and the U.K. are doing much of the work, along with the CROs, and the investors are providing some hands-on assistance as Holmes offers up the targets.

Right now, there are two lead preclinical programs being worked on at Capella, focusing on Crohn's disease/ulcerative colitis and fibrosis, with two backups in the works. And if a pharma company likes what it sees over the next couple of years, Capella and its backers will be ready to talk terms as it tinkers with the early-stage pipeline.

To be sure, antibody development may be somewhat routine now, but KaloBios set out with a plan to build an antibody company based on existing tech, and after repeated failures finds itself trying to regroup in bankruptcy. That cautionary tale underscores the notion that antibody development is harder than it may look at first blush.

"It'll come down to the commercial attractiveness, or otherwise, of what we develop," noted Medicxi's Kevin Johnson in a message to me. "We have a few heavy duty mab/Pharma people such as Don Drakeman associated with the company. But the main thing is we're not wedded to any particular technology or target. We started with several targets and specified up front what characteristics a mab would need be truly outstanding, and shot for that. If we didn't get it, fine, we killed the program and moved on. What we have now is a couple of programs that have survived (we didn't expect any of them to work actually) and will cherry pick one of those to develop further.

"What we have left looks pretty exciting in my opinion!"