Adcendo, a spinout from The Finsen Laboratory, The University of Copenhagen and Rigshospitalet, and BioInnovation Institute (BII) alumnus, has raised EUR 51M in a series A financing led by Novo Seeds and Ysios Capital, along with RA Capital Management, HealthCap and Gilde Healthcare.
It is one of the largest series A investments in the history of Danish biotech.
The company is developing antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) for the treatment of cancers focusing on soft-tissue sarcoma (STS), a cancer type occurring in many places in the body. The financing will be used to establish a pipeline of ADCs directed at novel cancer targets and to bring the lead program focusing on the main target uPARAP/Endo180 to proof of concept in patients.
In 2019, the company was accepted in the Creation House program and had already delivered an early proof of concept demonstrating a 100 percent cure rate of their cancer-bearing mice in the initial in vivo studies conducted at The Finsen Laboratory.
18 months at BII
Throughout the 18 months of incubation at BII, the team further refined the technology, tested the efficacy and safety of several promising candidates, strengthened the business plan and clinical strategy, established new key partnerships and onboarded their Advisory Board chaired by John Lambert, a top tier scientist within the field of ADCs.
“At Bioinnovation Institute, we de-risk early-stage start-ups and prepare companies for raising for series A investments and we are excited to have such a strong group of 1st tier investors backing Adcendo. Besides excellent science, the key to success for the team has been to bring in an experienced entrepreneur and to spend the EUR 1.5M from our Creation House program very wisely. It requires resilience, perseverance and collaboration to get to where they are”, says Hervør Lykke Olsen, Senior Business Developer.
Interview with founders
The news of the historic investment came out Thursday morning, but BII had the chance to sit down with COO Christoffer Nielsen and CEO Henrik Stage in the days prior to the announcement. In 2017, they co-founded Adcendo with Niels Behrendt and Lars Henning Engelholm.
As a post-doc at The Finsen Laboratory, where the research groups of Niels Behrendt and Lars Engelholm had laid the basic research foundation by elucidating the biological role of the uPARAP receptor, Christoffer Nielsen made the now published scientific proof-of-concept studies that Adcendo is based upon. Henrik Stage is an experienced life science entrepreneur with prior roles including as CEO of Santaris Pharma, which was sold to Roche in 2014.
How have you experienced the process of raising such a large investment?
CN: It has been a fantastic opportunity and of course very busy. From August to December 2020, we have done at least 100 pitches and meetings and since late December, we have been discussing the term sheet and been taken through a thorough due diligence process. A large group of leading key opinion leaders in both ADCs and cancer have commented on results, risks, opportunities and asked questions about all aspects of the company and the science. It has been quite a journey for me personally, having a background as a lab scientist, and now learning about all the elements that come into play when you want to translate a scientific discovery to potentially benefit patients.
HS: There is no doubt that securing the largest ever series A investment in Danish biotech is a very special experience. It has been very helpful to have been through the mechanics of an investment before, but this is nevertheless different. With this size of investment, we will be able to run things in parallel in the next few years and that is a huge advantage.
You made the scientific discovery in 2017. What has your translational approach been?
CN: When Lars Engelholm, Niels Behrendt and I saw our results, we realized that it could potentially benefit patients. We quickly agreed that we would seek to take the discovery forward in a spin-out fashion to aid in such a transition, but we needed the help of someone who had done this before. That was when Henrik Stage came on board, and we co-founded the Adcendo as four equal partners.
HS: I doubt we could have had a more straightforward process than we have had until now. The project received a pre-seed grant from Novo Holdings that allowed the team to prepare the data and business case needed to be accepted into BII’s Creation House. During our incubation here, we further refined our data, developed several internal and external animal models including advanced PDX cancer models, and continued to see very promising results. With those data, we could begin our fundraising in August 2020.
CN: Indeed, the BII convertible loan allowed us to set up elaborate models, and also to generate drug candidates of state-of-the-art design and quality that potentially could make it all the way to the clinic. That has been an extremely important step forward when talking to investors. In addition to that, timing has been good to us as there has been a very positive turnaround regarding the use of ADCs during the past 18-24 months. Six new drugs of the type have been approved, taking the total number of ADCs approved drugs from 4 to 10 in a short time. We have been able to ride this wave of positivity, also mediated by large deals in the ADC space such as Immunomedics that was acquired by Gilead for USD 21B.
How has BII played a role in this development?
HS: BioInnovation Institute has positioned us and helped us get in front of the right investors. The network surrounding us here has helped our case, and we will be staying until we are ready to establish ourselves on our own.
CN: During our time at BII, I have personally learned a lot more than I ever thought I would, even if I knew that the learning curve would be steep. As an academic founder, you tend to focus on the scientific discovery, and although I knew there was much more to it, I have been a little surprised by the sheer number of experts in many different areas that have come into play for us to reach this stage. It has been a couple of busy years and I doubt it will change, but I enjoy being busy and working with Adcendo at BII.
How are you going to celebrate?
CN: It is clear that the effort that has brought us here is based on a major effort put in by the entire scientific team, Jette Lange, Sander van Putten, Camilla Dall, Ida Gregersen, Joakim Sørensen, Valdemar Stage and Christoffer Flyger, as well as all of our consultants and collaborators that have helped us on this journey. Therefore, we plan to be celebrating next week, when we bring together the team, unfortunately except Sander who cannot travel in from the Netherlands. We bought champagne and will be congratulating each other on the effort and on having done something like this. I am grateful to be part of the continued journey.
HS: As Chris mentions, the lab team has been working very hard during a difficult time and it has not been easy during the pandemic. They have barely seen us, not only due to covid-19, but as we have been talking to investors non-stop for many months. Even so, they have made sure we had the necessary progress to get to where we are today.
CN: And afterward it is back to work for all of us!
About antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs)
ADCs are a class of highly potent biopharmaceutical drugs composed of an antibody linked, via a chemical linker, to a biologically active drug or cytotoxic compound. ADCs combine the unique and very sensitive targeting capabilities of antibodies, with the potent effects of the conjugated cytotoxic drugs, allowing sensitive discrimination between healthy and cancer tissues.
About the uPARAP target
uPARAP is a cell-surface receptor involved in collagen degradation and was cloned and characterized by the scientific founders. The receptor has a restricted expression profile in healthy individuals but is highly upregulated on the cancer cells of several cancer forms, including soft-tissue sarcoma, osteosarcoma, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), triple-negative breast cancers, and certain leukemias. Additionally, uPARAP is found to be upregulated in the stromal cells of several larger cancer indications, including breast-, colon- and prostate cancers. uPARAP is a recycling endocytic receptor, which mechanistically provides an extraordinarily efficient entry point into uPARAP-expressing cells. Hereby the target may be used as a cancer-associated “drug internalization pump” to bring the drug to the cancers. Adcendo is the first to demonstrate targeted drug delivery via uPARAP.