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How UB helped launch Buffalo’s only 43North finalist

Abcombi Biosciences was nurtured by a strong support system for UB startups.

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published October 19, 2016

“I can’t envision that we would have gotten to where we are without the UB community rallying behind us as they did.”
Charles Jones, CEO
Abcombi Biosciences

Led by an alumnus. Co-founded by professors. Nurtured by a campus support system that helps propel university spinoffs to success.

The story of Abcombi Biosciences — Buffalo’s only finalist in this year’s 43North business competition — shows how UB is advancing Western New York’s economy by providing student and faculty entrepreneurs with a growing network of resources designed to accelerate the growth of UB startups.

Since its founding in 2015, the company has taken advantage of a bevy of UB opportunities, such as seed funding, research partnerships with faculty and university-sponsored networking events — including one that helped attract a former Merck executive to Abcombi’s advisory team.

“I can’t envision that we would have gotten to where we are without the UB community rallying behind us as they did. The individual attention we have gotten has just been incredible,” says Abcombi CEO Charles Jones, who co-founded Abcombi while finishing his PhD at UB. His co-founders include Associate Professor Blaine Pfeifer, who served as Jones’ PhD adviser in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“The support systems here are great,” Jones says. “The people here at UB made so many important connections for us. We didn’t have to ask for help — they would reach out to us with useful information, to tell us when new opportunities came up.”

Abcombi is developing a portfolio of products for fighting infectious disease around the world.

The invitation to compete for 43North’s $1 million grand prize this month is just the latest chapter in Abcombi’s rise.

Earlier this year, the company won a first-place prize in the New York Business Plan Competition and was accepted to open a satellite office in Johnson & Johnson’s prestigious biomedical research incubator in Toronto. Abcombi recently completed preclinical trials for a vaccine for pneumonia and is wrapping up preclinical trials for a treatment targeting drug-resistant strains of the flu. Both technologies were developed at UB.

“For the team at UB, what has been so exciting about the company’s success is that we have been privileged to see its progression from the beginning,” says Kim Grant, business development executive for UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences. “Abcombi was an idea that was organically grown out of UB, cultivated by our faculty and students in our facilities, and then ‘adopted’ by one of our successful alumni — a former Merck executive who now serves as an adviser to Abcombi.”

An expanded support system for entrepreneurs

In recent years, UB has placed an increasing emphasis on advancing faculty and student startups.

“Abcombi’s spin out from UB is exactly the kind of commercial activity we can catalyze as a leading research university,” says Christina Orsi, associate vice president for economic development. “UB is enhancing the support structure to enable faculty, staff and students to commercialize more of their incredible innovations. These UB spin-outs will support the growth of the region’s economy while bringing to market leading-edge products and services.”

Abcombi has benefited from this focus on entrepreneurship and commercialization, including through the following opportunities:

  • UB research partnerships: Abcombi’s two most advanced products — the pneumonia vaccine and flu treatment — were developed in UB labs.

    The vaccine is based on research led by UB faculty, including Pfeifer. The flu treatment is being developed by Abcombi with Paul Knight, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Anesthesiology and Microbiology and Immunology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. UB’s technology transfer team is working to patent these UB discoveries and license them to Abcombi.

  • UB seed funding for commercial ventures: Abcombi has benefited from a growing list of UB programs that fund commercialization projects.

    The company has secured grants from the UB Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology (UB CAT), which leverages NYSTAR funds to provide matching grants for life sciences businesses; the Bruce Holm Memorial Catalyst Fund, which was launched in 2011 to commercialize UB discoveries; and the UB Small Business Innovation Award program, which was launched in 2016 to attract industry partners working with federal grants. Abcombi also received pre-seed funding in the form of a loan from the Directed Energy incubator program managed by UB. In addition, UB’s research and economic development team has helped the company apply for federal funds.

  • Business support through UB: Abcombi has taken part in UB programs that give startups access to such services as free business coaching and mentoring.

    These include the UB Technology Incubator’s tenX co-working program for early-stage entrepreneurs and the Pre-Seed Workshop, a two-day “bootcamp” for high-tech entrepreneurs hosted annually at UB. Abcombi attended the 2016 workshop, gaining access to technical, legal, business, finance and marketing experts who helped assess the company’s market prospects. More recently, UB introduced Abcombi to Johnson & Johnson’s JLABS @ Toronto incubator, which accepted the company as one of the facility’s inaugural startups.

  • Networking opportunities: UB’s economic development team has introduced Abcombi to key contacts, including a former Merck executive — a fellow UB graduate — who has joined Abcombi’s advisory team.

    Abcombi met UB alumna Margaret G. McGlynn, former president of Merck’s vaccines and infectious diseases division, at a 2015 meeting of the BioNetwork, a group of Western New York expatriates who commit time and capital to advancing the region’s life sciences economy. The event was sponsored by UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences. McGlynn, now an Abcombi adviser, has accelerated the company’s development through her deep knowledge of the pharmaceuticals industry.

  • Investor connections: Abcombi has connected with potential investors through UB.

    UB’s economic development team has facilitated Abcombi’s participation in events attended heavily by investors, including the Bright Buffalo Niagara Entrepreneur Expo led by UB, where Abcombi took the grand prize, and the BIO International convention, a premier event for biotechnology companies. Abcombi also participates in Critical Path, a Life Sciences Accelerator Program launched in 2016. This program partners UB, Launch NY, Invest Buffalo Niagara and the Western New York Incubator Network to give life sciences companies access to mentorship and venture capital.

  • Tax-free space: Abcombi was accepted into START-UP NY through UB in 2015.

    This New York State program — SUNY Tax-free Areas to Revitalize and Transform Upstate New York — promotes economic development by enabling universities to identify tax-free areas where businesses can locate. Locating in space designated by UB will enable Abcombi to operate for 10 years without paying state taxes.

“The support we’ve received from UB and the Buffalo community has just been overwhelming,” says Pfeifer, the engineering faculty member who co-founded Abcombi. “What I’ve learned through this process is that it’s not enough for a company to have great research results. You need that, for sure, but you also need expertise and connections in the business world, and the team at UB has helped us with that at every step of the way.”