Hummingbird Bioscience: an agile start-up takes to the skies
Hummingbird Bioscience is a highly innovative biotech company founded in 2014 to leverage the power of systems biology so as to transform oncology drug discovery and development. Harnessing its proprietary rational antibody discovery platform and supported by deep experience in integrative genomics as well as proteomics strategies, Hummingbird develops precision therapeutic antibodies for patients with the highest unmet need. With facilities in Singapore and South San Francisco, the company has built a pipeline of oncology and immuno-oncology drug candidates, and will start clinical trials at the end of 2019.
Biotech Connection Singapore spoke to Dr. Piers Ingram (PI), co-founder and CEO of Hummingbird Bioscience to find out how the start-up spreads its wings and flies.
The bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) is the smallest bird in the world. Why did you name yourselves after a small bird?
PI: Firstly, it is a unique name for an agile and nimble company. The hummingbird name is also a great ice-breaker topic. People have come up to me to start interesting conversations about hummingbirds. Incidentally, I have spotted hummingbirds outside our lab in South San Francisco!
So what’s the story behind Hummingbird Bioscience?
PI: I come from a systems and computational biology background. After a career in academia at Imperial College London, I came to Singapore in 2010 to do a MBA. I have always wanted to work at the interface between business and biopharma. Systems biology is a powerful tool for solving biological problems. However, systems biology ideas had not gained much traction then so I decided to start a company to bring the power of system biology approaches to drug discovery. I was fortunate to meet my co-founder (Dr. Jerome Boyd-Kirkup) who believed in a similar philosophy. We were encouraged when we generated interesting validation data very quickly. Support from family and friends definitely helped in cementing my decision to run the company full-time.
What is the vision and mission of Hummingbird Bioscience?
PI: Hummingbird Bioscience is focused on leveraging the rapid advances in systems biology to enhance therapeutics discovery and development. Through the application of proprietary technologies which we developed in-house, we seek to identify the most promising novel drug targets and therapeutic strategies; discover and engineer the most effective antibodies against these targets as well as develop ways of identifying patients where the drug will be most effective. We are also interested in getting our projects into the clinic and seeing the results of our research take shape.
Tell us more about the innovative technologies, especially the Rational Antibody Discovery Platform, that Hummingbird Bioscience is developing.
PI: We developed the platform to optimize the binding of antibodies to specific epitopes on a target. Often, with previous technologies, antibodies did not bind specifically as there was very little control over where an antibody would bind on a target protein, forcing researchers to screen through a huge pool of inefficient antibodies to find the functional needle-in-a-haystack antibody (if it existed) and develop it into a drug. This affects the efficacy of antibody based therapeutics. Hummingbird’s Rational Antibody Discovery Platform is a systems immunology and computational structural biology approach that enables precise targeting of epitopes and mechanisms of action. This ability to determine where an antibody will bind on a target is game-changing, and allows us to accelerate the exploration of novel biology as well as identify functional antibodies against key epitopes for the development of new therapeutics.
Having conducted research in both academia and industry, what is the difference between academic research and industrial research?
PI: In academia, research is determined by the funding available. Comparatively, there are more resources dedicated to projects in a start-up, thus speeding up research progress. However, there is more time to explore ideas in academia. In comparison, research focus shifts quickly in industry and projects that do not yield timely returns are often not pursued in start-ups. Knowledge generation is a key priority in both academia and industry. A lot of the work we do at Hummingbird Bioscience is academically interesting so we present our findings at conferences to connect with the scientific community.
Many biotech start-ups in Singapore are affiliated with institutes of higher learning and research institutes. Why did Hummingbird Bioscience set up its headquarters in Singapore as an independent biotech start-up? What is the journey ahead?
PI: Having formed connections in Singapore while obtaining my MBA, I was able to bounce ideas off thought partners. Fortunately, it is easy to collaborate with academic and research institutions here. They are generally supportive and helpful. They also provide resources and enable third party access to platforms.
Our key milestones for the next 18-24 months include the first human study for lead projects. We have completed clinical molecule development and currently, we are working on filing regulations. Other collaborations in the US are also in the pipeline. We look forward to testing and implementing our ideas!
What are the advantages of being an independent biotech start-up?
PI: It is important for new start-ups to be flexible and nimble as well as be able to pivot quickly from one idea to the next in the initial stages. Being an independent biotech start-up not affiliated with universities and research institutes means that we are able to take more risks with fewer restrictions. As such, we have more freedom to try new ideas.
Conversely, what are some of the challenges that Hummingbird has faced as an independent biotech start-up?
PI: Although institutions here are supportive, being an independent entity means that we have less access to resources. We have had to buy second hand equipment from auction sites and convince local distributors to provide service support. Thankfully, they have been supportive!
Given the global biotech ecosystem, how do you extend your reach beyond Singapore so as to access markets overseas?
PI: In addition to our sites at Biopolis and Academia in Singapore, we have opened a clinical development laboratory in South San Francisco. This has allowed us to collaborate with companies in the area to validate the assays that we have developed. We have also established collaborations with leading academic institutions in the US to access their expertise.
Who are your main sources of funding?
PI: We have local angel investors in Singapore as well as institutional venture capital funding from the US and China. Thus, our funding is not limited by geographical location – a reflection of the global nature of biotechnology.
Any advice for aspiring bioentrepreneurs?
PI: I would encourage those who want to embark on bioentrepreneurship and drug development to take the leap and do it. The first step to getting started is often the hardest. In fact, drug development is one of the most challenging endeavours in society. There are only approximately 20 new drugs developed annually. There are also obstacles in biology and project management. To get over the hurdles, you have to be psyched about the road ahead and also be comfortable with uncertainty as well as the possibility of different outcomes. That said, it’s been an amazing journey!
- Bioentrepreneurship is a challenging but rewarding endeavour
- Be flexible and nimble to stay ahead of the game
Above information is correct at the time of publication.
Photo: Hummingbird Bioscience