From Scientist to Founder: David Llewellyn On DJS Antibodies’ $255 Million Acquisition


To learn more about DJS Antibodies’ $255 million acquisition, click here to watch the full video of David Llewellyn’s global keynote.

In recent years, the field of biotechnology has witnessed a remarkable surge in scientific and technological breakthroughs, driving progress across healthcare, agriculture, and environmental sustainability. Within this dynamic landscape, innovative biotech startups have emerged as pivotal players, catalyzing transformative developments.

DJS Antibodies is one such trailblazing biotechnology company, dedicated to forging the future of antibody therapeutics. Spearheading this endeavor is David Llewellyn, the company’s managing director and co-founder, whose mission is to engineer antibodies combating chronic inflammatory diseases.

The culmination of their efforts reached a significant milestone in October 2022 when DJS Antibodies was acquired by AbbVie for a staggering $255 million. This strategic partnership promises to bolster research capabilities and fortify AbbVie’s immunology portfolio.

On November 16, David will detail his journey with DJS Antibodies in a global keynote for Founders Network. During the event, he’ll share how his passion for exploring medical advancements led him to establish a cutting-edge biotech startup worth millions.

David will also cover: 

  • Creative strategies for funding a business in the idea phase
  • Practical tips for how to accomplish more with less capital
  • Insights into how to close an M&A deal 
  • How to identify who will help and hinder you during your startup journey

Driven By Science

David is a native of Australia who grew up in a small town a few hours’ drive from Sydney. He moved to the United Kingdom in 2010 with the goal of pursuing a Ph.D. in medical science focusing on vaccines and immunology. David completed a Ph.D. at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute where he worked to develop vaccines and research malaria.

During his studies, he met another student, Dr. Joe Illingworth, who shared his passion. While exploring the idea of a career in academia, David and his future co-founder Joe stumbled upon a pitch competition that sparked a new idea in their minds.

“We put in an application – not based on any data – but based on our idea for how we could use our immunology knowledge to make antibody drugs,” says David.

To the duo’s surprise, they made it to the finals of the competition. The dream at the end of the road was a £100,000 prize that would allow them to explore the potential of their idea. When the award ceremony commenced, the pair learned that their idea would fall short of the grand prize.

The time spent at the competition, however, was not without importance. A pharmaceutical company caught wind of their idea and decided to fund their concept.

“We didn’t win the prize. But we did get some support from a pharmaceutical company who said, ‘Hey we’ll give you a little bit of money to test this crazy idea.’ That was really the start,” shares David. 

With £75,000 under their belt, they got to work to test their hypothesis.

Building a Biotech Startup

The stringency of the biotech market is one that would test many. A typical founding investment for a biotech startup generally sits at $5 million or more. The startup costs are high and the industry itself requires a high level of rigor in order to be successful.

“The kind of model you might see with a software startup where costs are low because all you need is a computer and a desk – and either pay yourself or not – doesn’t really happen in biotech. This is because you have to experiment in a lab with physical things that are super expensive,” says David. “The whole journey of DJS Antibodies was pretty atypical because we did follow more of a software model where we had really low capital and cash. We used secondhand equipment, went to garage sales, and did a lot of crazy things to get the pieces of kit we needed.”

It took 18 months from the date that David and Joe landed their first £75,000 until they reached their proof of concept. The next step was to look for investors.

“We went out to the venture capital community and angel investors. We heard a lot a lot of thanks, but no thanks” says David. “Eventually we got a small investment of under a million pounds from a fund based in Oxford, UK, that had just raised a big fund to invest in biotech in the area.”

David applied to government and innovation grants that landed them close to £2 million in additional grant funding between late 2016 through to end of 2020.

“And at the end of 2020, we were a four-person team with a pre-series A round of 6 million pounds,” says David.

The DJS team grew to 12 members as they approached 2021 and finally felt a spike in their momentum. In October of 2022, they were ready to sell. They landed a $255 million deal with the pharmaceutical research and development company AbbVie.

Today, David is the managing director of DJS. He continues to pursue his passion of medical and therapeutic research.

Advice For Founders

If you ask David, he is honest to say that he never intended to become a biotech startup founder. His mission was always to use his expertise in the medical science space to explore and create something meaningful.

Despite this, the graduation of David into the role of a founder taught him many lessons he hadn’t initially set out to learn.

The first lesson David shares is the idea of exploring more than one pathway to achieve what you set out to accomplish.

“You can do more than you expect with not very much. Try to be practical about costs. When the first person quotes you $50,000, and you don’t have $50,000, think: How can I still do it? Thrifty problem-solving always will get you further,” says David.

The second piece he shares is that no one is going to fight for a founder harder than the founder themself. David encourages founders to be smart when it comes to working with investors and managing their equity. He recommends founders focus on retaining ownership of a big piece of their pie to avoid getting diluted.

His last piece of advice? The harder you work, the luckier you get. While the work is important, it’s hard to succeed without encountering a little luck.

To learn more about DJS Antibodies’ $255 million acquisition, click here to watch the full video of David Llewellyn’s global keynote.

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