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Biotech star Jonathan Milner on Abcam’s new HQ and the breakthroughs he’s excited about

Jonathan Milner, founder of Abcam
Jonathan Milner, founder of Abcam

We talk to Abcam founder, angel investor, philanthropist and biotech superstar Jonathan Milner about the antibody firm’s new HQ significance – and how Cambridge science is revolutionising healthcare.

Andrew Carrington (Countryside); David Russell-Smith (Tesco Pension Fund); Katherine Parker (Tesco Pension Fund); Andrew Blevins (Liberty Property Trust) at the Abcam ground-breaking ceremony
Andrew Carrington (Countryside); David Russell-Smith (Tesco Pension Fund); Katherine Parker (Tesco Pension Fund); Andrew Blevins (Liberty Property Trust) at the Abcam ground-breaking ceremony

When Jonathan Milner remortgaged his home to launch Abcam in 1998, he could never have imagined standing in the footprint of what will be its new 100,000 square foot headquarters for 450 of its 1,000 global staff.

For a time, it was far from clear if it would reach its first anniversary.

But now the state-of-the-art laboratory and office facility is required to help Abcam, a world leader in providing antibodies and associated data for the life sciences industry, write the next chapter of its Cambridge success story.

“The main thing is collaboration,” Jonathan Milner tells the Cambridge Independent, when asked what advantage the new HQ on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus (CBC) will bring.

“It’s at the heart of what will be the largest life sciences research hub in the whole of Europe, with AstraZeneca, Papworth and others. It’s going to be a thriving community which is going to spin off a lot of opportunities for collaboration.”

The team, now based at three sites on Cambridge Science Park, will come together on the site in late 2018.

Next year marks two decades since Jonathan was working as a post-doctoral researcher studying a newly-discovered breast cancer protein in Professor Tony Kouzarides’ Cambridge laboratory. Frustrated by the delays caused in finding quality antibody reagents with genuine and up to date information about their uses and limitations, Jonathan and others in the lab hit upon the idea of a new company to fill the void.

Abcam – taking its name from antibody and Cambridge – was launched by Jonathan with Prof Kouzarides and Cambridge entrepreneur David Cleevely, who helped with the vision of making Abcam a web-based firm, something revolutionary back then.

Vision of the new Abcam global HQ at Cambridge Biomedical Campus
Vision of the new Abcam global HQ at Cambridge Biomedical Campus

They built a search engine to help users find antibodies from more than 500 companies, which also helped them to develop their antibodies. Next they built a reliable database with information about every antibody.

“It was incredibly scary because we didn’t have any money. We put in a minimal amount of money that we scraped together ourselves. Being always on the verge of running out of money was terrifying but was good because it prompted me to get out there and get some sales in, no matter what it took.

“The most convenient way was to get on my bike with an ice bucket and go around all the labs and blag my way in and ask people if they wanted to buy these antibodies. It saved the company actually – if I hadn’t done that, Abcam certainly wouldn’t be here.”

Did he ever imagine what it could become?

“No, I had absolutely no foresight. If somebody told me then what has happened now – a £2billion market cap, approaching 1,000 employees worldwide and all the fantastic things we’ve achieved – I would have laughed and not believed it.

“But I was always very ambitious to take the company to the next year and I suppose when you are a founder/CEO in the first instance you can’t see much further than the next day.

“If you don’t get the sales the next day, you’re out. But gradually as the sales build up and you get to the scale-up phase, you start to think about the next one or two years.

“You’ve got some visibility over the next one or two years, but not over the next five-10 years, so I had absolutely no idea it would be as successful as it has been.”

The most convenient way was to get on my bike with an ice bucket and go around all the labs and blag my way in and ask people if they wanted to buy these antibodies. It saved the company actually
Jonathan Milner, founder of Abcam

The experience has clearly stuck with Jonathan and driven his angel investment. He built up a portfolio of 40 companies and is actively involved in 10.

“One of the things I found initially very, very difficult was this transition from being a bench scientist working with a lot of test tubes and working on breast cancer and focusing on one thing, to running a start-up business where you had to do all the jobs yourself. It was very difficult for my brain to switch between the different tasks.

“But once I’d overcome that and got into the scale-up phase something happened to me which was quite unexpected and that was I really started to enjoy that problem-solving of how do you get businesses to scale. I found it enormous fun.

“I think that’s what I wanted to capture again and again in the angel investments I do. I find the fun bit is scaling-up companies.”

Now Abcam’s deputy chairman, Jonathan was still the company’s CEO when he began his angel investment activities and philanthropic endeavours – which include access to education projects, involvement with the Natural History Museum and a £5million donation to Bath University to establish the Milner Centre for Evolutionary Studies.

A day before we talk, Jonathan was at a board meeting of Repositive, a company based at the Future Business Centre in Cambridge providing a human genomic data platform for researchers.

It was formed to enable the sharing of knowledge – something it has in common with Abcam.

“There is as much value in the information as in the actual physical product,” comments Jonathan. “Antibodies are very complex products – very useful, but in order to be able to use them you need to have the right validation information about what they can and can’t do and that didn’t exist efficiently at all before Abcam arrived and put all that information on to datasheets.”

A digital illustration of antibodies
A digital illustration of antibodies

The sharing of knowledge is a theme that runs through his projects.

“I spend a lot of my time just networking people – putting people in contact with one another, which is enormously rewarding and being in Cambridge it’s fabulous because they all help one another,” he says.

It was knowledge-sharing that drove him to put £5million into building the Milner Institute, designed to bring pharmaceutical companies into closer association with academics.

“Tony Kouzarides came to me and said ‘it’s really frustrating trying to get big pharma to work efficiently with the university, how about starting up this institute?’. I said, ‘Tony, you’re preaching to the converted’.”

The institute, named after Jonathan, will be housed in the new Capella building on CBC, with labs operational next year.

“It has a remit to bring in the best of big pharma’s chemistry expertise and couple it with the best of the biology expertise coming out of the university to accelerate drug development,” explains Jonathan.

It is widely hoped that collaboration on the biomedical campus will bring down the time taken to get drugs to market.

“The early evidence is that it’s happening. There’s a lot of activity all around accelerating the drug discovery process because it’s taking too long at the moment. Patients are not getting a good deal out of it and pharma companies are suffering because of it,” observes Jonathan.

Andrew Carrington (Countryside); Andrew Blevins (Liberty Property Trust); Alan Hirzel (Abcam); Jonathan Milner (Abcam); Anne Hoffman (Abcam) at the Abcam ground-breaking ceremony
Andrew Carrington (Countryside); Andrew Blevins (Liberty Property Trust); Alan Hirzel (Abcam); Jonathan Milner (Abcam); Anne Hoffman (Abcam) at the Abcam ground-breaking ceremony

But he is greatly excited by the progress he is seeing in the life sciences – not least at Abcam. Since the acquisition of AxioMx, it has been leading the way in the use of recombinant antibodies, which are generated in vitro using synthetic genes, rather than by using animals.

“The vast majority of our antibody manufacture since we acquired AxioMx is now making recombinant antibodies, which have enormous advantages over having to immunise rabbits and mice. You’ve got less batch-to-batch variability, you don’t run out of the serum once you’ve sold a few hundred units and you don’t have to revalidate because it’s in culture so you’ve got as much of the antibody as you want.

“So we’ve revolutionised the industry and we are leading the way in raising the quality through using recombinant antibody technology.”

There is cause for excitement elsewhere too.

“Two important breakthroughs are happening right now. The first is in much faster, cheaper, more efficient drug discovery because you can use disease cellular models or ‘patients-in-a-test-tube’,” says Jonathan. This technique is being pioneered by Horizon Discovery, Axol Bioscence and DefiniGEN – companies Jonathan helped establish and which he remains heavily involved in.

“They are on the cutting edge of supplying disease cell models,” he says. “The previous method of drug discovery used a lot of animals, which ethically wasn’t good but also we are not mice or chimps so it was always quite inaccurate as well.

“What you can do now is take heart cells, brain cells, liver cells and grow them in a culture – these are the cellular disease models or ‘patients-in-a-test-tube’. Then you can apply your drugs and do toxicity testing, drug efficacy and so on, screen out a lot of the stuff that’s going to be toxic and then you’ve got a much higher chance of these drugs going forward and being successful.

“The second thing happening right now is that there are now a load of clinical trials using stems cells in regenerative medicines.

“All the big pharma companies are interested in this. You can use these cells to repair damaged heart tissue or damaged brain tissue. We are just at the start of that but it’s enormously exciting.”

As building work continues on Abcam’s new HQ, you get the impression there will be much more to get excited about.

Innovation and collaboration

Abcam’s CEO Alan Hirzel said the firm’s new global HQ will aid its innovation.

Speaking after the ground-breaking ceremony, he said: “We are making an investment in building our global HQ at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus because it’s important for us to be close to our local science and biomedical communities.

“Bringing the Abcam team together will improve our efficiency and innovation to better serve researchers and accelerate discovery in the life sciences. We look forward to bringing our enthusiastic team to this location in late 2018”.

Hosted by the joint developers of Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Liberty Property Trust and Countryside Properties, the ground-breaking ceremony marked the first development in phase two of the rapidly expanding campus.

Andrew Carrington, managing director of Countryside, said: ““Our priority for phase 2 of the campus masterplan was to create an environment that promotes and enhances communication and collaboration within the life sciences sector.”

Malcolm Lowe-Lawri, executive director at Cambridge University Health Partners, which helps to promote and manage the campus, said: “Abcam will be a fantastic addition to the biomedical campus. Nowhere in the UK and rarely across the world do you find the unique set of opportunities we have in Cambridge.”

Construction of Abcam’s facility, designed by NBBJ, was forward funded by Tesco Pension Fund. Bidwells and Savills acted for the joint developers of the campus.

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