Vendor Profile: The Antibody, The Scientist, and an Adorable Sheep; The Story of Abcam

British-based Biotech Makes A Home in Massachusetts, Working to Discover Medicine

05.10.13 | By

Last week I wrote about my experience at the US Chamber’s Small Business Summit, and noted that I would be profiling some smaller businesses who work with pharmaceutical manufacturing companies as vendors.

These vendors are enormously important because as we’ve said before, researching and manufacturing medicine doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The business relationships between pharmaceutical manufacturers and the smaller companies they hire to help them research a new drug can positively impact thousands of jobs and communities. Take, for example, the vendor relationship footprint in Massachusetts, where more than 9,960 vendor relationships with just 17 pharmaceutical companies fuel  $4,191,718,269 of spending within the state. 

Abcam, Inc. is a great example. Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Abcam employs about 75 people (700 globally) as part of their work making research tools, providing technical support, and other research-based services.

Bill Campbell is the Director and General Manager, and took a few moments to talk about what they do, how their business feeds into the larger process of making medicine, and what’s going on with that adorable sheep.

So, tell me what Abcam does, how do you fit into the process of discovering new medicines?

BC: We provide high-quality protein research tools, expert technical support, fast global delivery, and up-to-date and honest data on those tools to companies that develop new medicines.  Our growing range of products include primary and secondary antibodies, biochemicals, proteins, peptides, lysates, immunoassays and other kits. These tools enable life scientists to analyze components of living cells at the molecular level, which is essential in understanding health and disease.

How did Abcam get started?

BC: The idea for Abcam came early in 1998 out of a laboratory in the University of Cambridge, UK. The principal founder Jonathan Milner was working as a Post-Doctoral researcher studying the newly discovered breast cancer protein BRCA2 in Professor Tony Kouzarides' laboratory. The project slowed because of problems finding quality antibody reagents that had honest and up to date information about their uses and limitations. It was frustrating. It was then that Jonathan and a number of other people in the laboratory, came up with the idea for a web-based antibody company of like-minded scientists. Tony invented the name which is a hybrid of antibody (ab) and Cambridge (cam). The idea was that Abcam would sell the best antibodies in the world with the most comprehensive, honest and up-to-date datasheets, fast delivery and helpful customer service & technical support. It was a tough vision!

A lucky break came when Jonathan met and discussed the idea with Dr David Cleevely (a Cambridge telecoms entrepreneur) who was smart (or some said crazy!) enough to join him in the venture. So in the summer of 1998, Jonathan left the world of academia to work full-time on Abcam, which he describes as the scariest thing he has ever done. Initially Abcam had a small amount of money from David, family, friends and Jonathan (after re-mortgaging his house; he has a very understanding wife!), but they realized that they needed a big injection of capital to build a website to accomplish the vision and increase production of Abcam's own antibodies. A business plan was written and the Directors went out confidently to raise money from venture capitalists. However, the next couple of years were really tough as Abcam struggled to convince the VCs that a viable business could be built from such an idealistic vision.

Things were looking really bleak and Abcam needed to get some sales quickly, so Jonathan took an ice-bucket full of popular antibodies around the University of Cambridge laboratories in order to get friends and colleagues to buy them, which they did (thanks guys!). Hence the legend of Abcam's humble beginnings from an ice-bucket was born!

Our first notable successes arrived in the early part of the new millenium: Chromatin antibodies, loading control antibodies and GFP antibodies. Then we had two further lucky breaks. First, some local business angels (people from the Cambridge business community who wish to help technology businesses get started) were convinced to invest and second, some like-minded scientists and talented individuals were recruited (who form the basis of Abcam's management team today) and this succeeded in boot-strapping the company through those difficult times. Of course there was also tremendous determination to prove that those venture capitalists were wrong and that a successful profitable company, that would also make a valuable contribution to life science researchers, could be built on such a business plan.

Any advice for other new startups and vendors?
BC: Recruit good people and do not give up on your dreams. 

Now what about that sheep?!

A lot of researchers ask where we got the idea for Molly the sheep. It was simply because Dolly the sheep was making headline news at the time, so we created the body out of a molecular space fill model and gave her antibody legs, and thus the molecular Dolly became Abcam's Molly.


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