Sean McClain and Frank Tate at Built with Biology 2022 | Absci Sean McClain and Frank Tate at Built with Biology 2022 | Absci

05.07.2022

Sean McClain and Frank Tate at Built with Biology 2022

Absci founder & CEO Sean McClain sat down for a chat with Frank Tate at the recent Built with Biology 2022. They talked about Absci’s partnership with NVIDIA, the new Absci AI Research (AAIR) Lab in NYC, and more.

Interview Transcript:

Host:
Here’s the thing. We always think of biotechnology as being, oh, it’s in San Francisco, oh, it’s in Boston, and that’s not really true. There are incredible things happening all over the world, and in of all places, Vancouver, Washington? I don’t know. We’re going to find out. So, please welcome to the stage, the founder, CEO and the most fabulous dancer of all time of Absci’s Sean McClain and Built with Biology’s very own CEO, Frank Tate, who is not a fabulous dancer. Cheers, you guys.

Frank Tate:
That is true.

Sean McClain:

Frank, I’m pretty sure you’re a way better dancer than I am.

Frank Tate:
Yeah.

Sean McClain:
We should have to dance off.

Frank Tate:
You’re dead wrong. We’ll do that later. So you guys, I’m so excited about this session, because as you know, I’m new to biology and because of the music business, how we find new talent is we go out and check out the clubs and see what the competition’s doing. But I took over CEO in the middle of the pandemic, so there wasn’t a lot of travel available, but then I was introduced to Sean and they’re up in Vancouver, Washington of all places. So I was able to fly up there. You fly into Portland and you take a left. And when I got to their lab, I was blown away because I expected to see these boring, sterile Costco looking like labs. And I get in and I feel like I’m in one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever been in.

Frank Tate:
So I immediately assume that Sean’s been in this business forever and his parents gave him a bunch of money and he inherited it because we have that in the music business all the time. Some dad will give his kid 10 million bucks to start a label and then he blows through it. But when I saw your lab, I was in awe, but I’m even more impressed when I heard his story. So I want to ask first, if you could share with them your story because it’s so untraditional from what I was expecting.

Sean McClain:
Yeah, definitely. So I founded Absci 10 years ago with really the vision of transforming how we do protein based biomanufacturing. And I was studying at the University of Arizona studying molecular biology and biochemistry, and just got really obsessed with synthetic biology. And if you look at the history of biotech, it began with Genentech and Genentech’s first product was insulin and they’re making insulin in E. coli. And as you all know, the industry shifted to monoclonal antibodies. Well, Genentech actually tried to produce a monoclonal antibody in E. coli, butE. coli wasn’t capable of manufacturing it. So they switched to CHO cells or mammalian cells and by making that transition, the cost went up in development times went up. And I knew that if we could apply engineering principles to engineering E. coli to be more mammalian, that could be a huge game changer within the industry.

Sean McClain:
And so I decided to come up with this crazy idea on how to engineer E. coli to produce a monoclonal antibody and moved back in with my parents and convinced my fiance actually at the time to move in with my parents as well.

Frank Tate:
That’s awesome.

Sean McClain:
Which was trying times, living with the fiance while starting a business. And we got this 200 square foot basement lab in downtown Portland and spent 18 months doing all the strain engineering and showing we could actually produce an antibody in E. coli, and that was 10 years ago. And we were able to get a large pharma partnership from there, which led to great success. And they actually tried to acquire us at that point in time. And we were able to use that to go raise our Series A because let’s be honest, there’s no VC that was going to give me any money graduating from the University of Arizona, undergrad, living in Portland, Oregon, well Vancouver, Washington.

Sean McClain:
That is not the recipe that most VCs look at for success. So we were able to use that success that we had from that acquisition offer to raise our Series A and continue to build out the technology. And we’ve just continued to evolve over time and seeing where the industry is going. That’s the beautiful part about the company and where we’re at. We always believe in the impossible and we’re always innovating and looking at ways of where the industry is headed and how can we adapt to that to ultimately get better drugs to patients and fast forward to where we’re at today. We ended up adapting all of this technology for data acquisition, for protein, protein interactions, being able to manufacture them and actually leverage that data with AI to ultimately be able to look at the right search space for a given target or indication designing the better biologics that ultimately get to patients much faster. But yeah, it’s been an exciting journey over the last 10 years.

Frank Tate:
Yeah. Okay. So I want to summarize what he just said, because we just blew through a decade there, but for you racers that are in the audience today and for the people that have been here all week, we have 550 new students and startups here today. But what this story is that Sean went to the University of Arizona at an undergraduate level, moved back in with his parents, 10 years in the trenches and now he’s the youngest CEO of a publicly held biotech company ever. Right?

Sean McClain:
I believe that’s the case.

Frank Tate:
Yeah. Okay. So let’s beat him. He was 32, but I think you racers can beat him. And now, so the cool thing is with all the tools and technologies available, he didn’t have to go to grad school. He just got funded, brought him into this amazing lab. And now you guys, tell him about the AI stuff that you’re doing because that blows my mind.

Sean McClain:
Yeah. I just want to say though, we shouldn’t be where we’re at. We shouldn’t have been a publicly traded company doing what we’re doing now, but it’s because we believed in the impossible, we knew that it was possible to engineer biology to integrate that with AI and to ultimately see our vision through, of getting the best biologics to patients at truly unprecedented speeds. And that’s what the racers here and just always remember that everything is possible. It’s all about chipping away one problem at a time. And a lot of times you look back and you realize, “Oh my gosh, we’ve accomplished an extraordinary amount of work over this period of time and have really turned the impossible into possible.” But it’s a mindset. That’s what it is at the end of the day.

Frank Tate:
Well, and that’s what I love about this proof point here because the guys, the George Church’s and Drew Indies and Jason Kelly’s, all those guys, they had to pave away for this story to be possible.

Sean McClain:
100 percent.

Frank Tate:
And now for you guys, you racers, now this story is so possible that Sean, you should only hold that title for a couple of years. We should have a younger CEO of a publicly held company that could be in this audience right now. But the thing I’m also excited about when I heard about your new partnership, it literally blew my mind because it’s one of my favorite companies. Can you tell us about the deal that you did within NVIDIA?

Sean McClain:
Yeah. So we announced a really exciting partnership with NVIDIA a few weeks ago at the NVIDIA GTC conference and NVIDIA partners with those that are activating ecosystems within an industry. And the reason why they partnered with us is they saw what we were doing in the AI space for protein-based drug discovery and the huge breakthroughs that we’ve had. We’ve been able to actually show that you can take an antibody sequence and be able to predict the affinity that it would bind to the target. Not only that, generate an antibody that has the desired affinity that you want, which is a huge breakthrough. And this partnership is helping us and the industry accelerate our models and other models using their compute its, ensuring that the compute and the software is going to be amenable for biology and healthcare.

Sean McClain:
And we couldn’t be more excited to be partnering with a company like Nvidia and Jensen, the CEO of NVIDIA, he is super inspirational to me and what he’s accomplished over the years. Talk about another company that has pivoted from a graphics company to a company that’s going to help power the metaverse. You see these companies and these entrepreneurs evolve over time and it’s just really extraordinary. And to be able to partner with somebody, with Jensen and Nvidia, it’s really amazing.

Frank Tate:
I love it. Yeah. I love it. The other thing I love is that they’re in Vancouver, Washington, which every time-

Sean McClain:
Where is that?

Frank Tate:
Yeah, exactly. Oh, I love Canada. I hear that all the time, but this is another amazing proof point for us because we’ve been so young before we’ve been very Bay Area and Boston and now in the last year, what kind of headcount have you added there?

Sean McClain:
Yeah, I think we’ve added over 140 employees over the last year, year and a half and we’re just continuing to grow. We’re about 240. We call ourselves unlimiters at Absci. So we’re 240 unlimiters. We’ll be up to 300 by the end of the year. And we actually just opened up an AI research lab in New York that we’re going to be continuing to grow out. And so, yeah.

Frank Tate:
Yeah, I love it. So the whole purpose of this session, you guys is to let you know that we’re definitely at a pivot point in the story right now, a very exciting one. One that you have an undergraduate degree, you can move in with your parents and you can be the CEO of a publicly held company in the middle of nowhere. Vancouver’s literally, it’s Portland suburb, right? But it’s amazing. And you can buy a house for half a million dollars and the schools are amazing.

Frank Tate:
So, I wanted Sean to come up here to encourage all of you wherever you’re from, start there, man. We can take this thing beyond the coast, just like in the music business. We went from LA and New York to Nashville and Austin. So we want to be everywhere with that. And we’re actually going to be doing a field trip up to their offices up to their lab because I want everybody to see that. So if you’d be interested in going with us up to Portland and taking a left, just reach out to [email protected] It’ll probably be in the next, whenever his schedule calms down, but you guys got to see this place because we want to inspire you to do even greater things. I don’t want him to have this title for more than two years. Two years, I want a sub 30 person.

Sean McClain:
I’m hoping like six months.

Frank Tate:
Six months?

Sean McClain:
Yeah.

Frank Tate:
Okay. Six months. So great to see everybody. Absci, check out their website. They’re incredible. And we’re super grateful for you, Sean. Thank you for doing this.

Sean McClain:
Yeah. Hey, thanks so much, Frank.

Frank Tate:
Yeah.

Sean McClain:
Thanks, all.