RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – On the heels of its potentially $4 billion sale to Bayer, Research Triangle Park-based gene-therapy company AskBio plans expansion and additional hiring.

AskBio cofounder and CEO, Sheila Mikhail tells WRAL TechWire that Bayer is committed to the growth of the company. She said the company will be hiring “across the board,” with positions open in finance and other areas. Its three-year plan includes significant growth that Bayer supports. “There is a lot of opportunity for people here.”

Her main concern is finding enough qualified people. “Biotech is a hot market for labor right now,” she said. “There is a lot of money going into the biotech space.”

The company currently employs 300 people, half in the Research Triangle, half in Europe.

AskBio has clinical programs across a range of neurodegenerative and neuromuscular indications. They include therapeutics for Pompe disease, limb-girdle muscular dystrophy 2i/R9 Parkinson’s, and congestive heart failure.

The company has focused on a lot of underserved disease areas.

It also out-licensed clinical indications for hemophilia and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. AskBio’s gene therapy platform uses adeno-associated (AAV) viruses to carry therapeutic genes into human cells. AAVs are small viruses that can infect cells without causing any known diseases. Its technology was developed by its co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, R. Jude Samulski, who invented it while still a Ph.D student.

The company chose to accept Bayer’s offer because it met certain AskBio conditions. It wanted to continue its independent culture,  Leadership would stay with the company. No titles will change, in the purchase, Mikhail said. That was a lesson learned when AskBio sold one of its four spinout, Bamboo, to Pfizer, which took its technology but not its management.

Bayer on the other hand, said, “You must come,” Mikhail explains. Bayer also offers a lot of synergies with its extensive expertise in the cardiovascular field. Bayer promised an “arms-length” relationship with AskBio.

IPO was a possible choice

The company was prepared to go the IPO route after raising a large round last year. In May 2019 AskBio raised $225 million in equity funding and another $10 million from founders and board members. The funding was the largest single round of venture capital financing for a North Carolina bioscience company ever.

AskBio exec: Gene editing firm chose $4B Bayer offer over other firms, also going public

It was not always so, Mikhail pointed out. At times during the 20-year history of the company, “I felt like I had lead boots on my feet,” Mihail said. “We couldn’t raise money. So we created a lot of value on a shoestring. How to build a company worth a billion with no money, that was my challenge.”

Raising money was difficult, in no small part because investors did not believe gene therapy was viable. “We had to teach the blind to see and the lame to walk,” Mikhail said, regarding advances AskBio and other gene therapies that proved they had a lucrative future. Gene therapy fixes the cause of a disease rather than treating the symptoms, which makes it attractive.

But the investment community took some convincing and AskBio survived some lean times. Its four spinouts, two of which sold, helped it raise cash.

Itself a 2001 spinout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, AskBio, a contraction of the company’s full name, Asklepios BioPharmaceutical, went 17 years before raising substantial capital. It did have early support from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which can be crucial at the early stages.

Since then, however, gene therapy took off, and is a market forecast to grow to nearly $7 billion in 2027 from under $2 billion in 2019, according to Grand View Research.,

Now, Mikhail said, UNC, as a shareholder, is going to do well, as will the company employees with options. 

Otherwise, “It’s business as usual,” said Mikhail. “But I can tell you, it’s easier building a company with money than without.”

Inside the $4B AskBio deal, the third largest buyout ever for an NC bioscience firm