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[Herald Interview] Avellino Labs confident in 3-pronged strategy

Ahead of IPO, ophthalmologic gene diagnosis firm says Korean investors should evaluate company based on merits alone

US ophthalmologic gene diagnosis company Avellino Labs is preparing for its initial public offering on the Kosdaq, South Korea’s secondary bourse. It expects to be listed in the fourth quarter of this year at the earliest.

Avellino Labs chief sales and marketing officer, Eric Bernabei, met with The Korea Herald for an interview in Gangnam, Seoul, on Thursday, during his four-day visit to the country for meetings with underwriters and officials at the Korea Exchange.

Bernabei was joined by US investment bank Lumos Partners’ managing partner Vivek Goyal, who is providing consultant services for the IPO.

Both Bernabei and Goyal stressed that Korean investors should look at the benefits of Avellino Labs based on its merits alone, and not disvalue it because of other bio firms’ recent performance here. 

Avellino Lab’s Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Eric Bernabei (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)
Avellino Lab’s Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Eric Bernabei (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)

The Korean biomedical industry has been hit by a series of negative events this year -- including the revocation of a key product of Kolon TissueGene, which now faces risk of delisting -- which have increased market volatility and triggered unease among investors.

Despite the industry’s gloomy outlook, Bernabei said he was confident his firm’s listing would go smoothly.

“We have a business model that does not solely rely on one product. We have three pillars, three separate businesses that rely on each other but would still exist if you take one out,” said Bernabei, referring to Avellino Lab’s gene diagnosis service, big data pool and gene therapy research and development.

Bernabei, who has 20 years of experience in the field of ophthalmology, joined Avellino Labs this year, leaving his workplace of 12 years, Alcon -- Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis’ eye care specialist subsidiary, where he helped launch innovative implants and in-vitro diagnostic devices.
Eric Bernabei and Lumos Partners’ Vivek Goyal, the IPO consultant for Avellino Labs (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)
Eric Bernabei and Lumos Partners’ Vivek Goyal, the IPO consultant for Avellino Labs (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)

“It was clear that genetics was going to be the place where most medical decisions were going to be made in the next 10 years,” Bernabei said,

“If you look at what technology can do in ophthalmology today, we’ve maxed out on making procedures efficient and safe,” he said. “The secret is now beyond what one can do with hands, it’s more in the diagnostics section.”

Bernabei underlined that eye-related degenerative illnesses are retrospectively diagnosed after symptoms start to show, and by then patients can only try to slow the progression of the illnesses.

With genetic tests, patients can take precautionary steps to prevent the illnesses altogether.

Avellino Labs has started out with the goal of helping people with the genetic possibility of developing Avellino corneal dystrophy, or combined granular-lattice corneal dystrophy, which is a rare form of corneal dystrophy.

The company has now developed a Next Generation Sequencing panel that will discern genetic characteristics for keratoconus, a progressive eye disease.

This NGS panel will launch in the US in October as soon as it gets CLIA validation. CLIA stands for clinical laboratory improvement amendments, and it guarantees that Avellino can responsibly handle and protect patient data it accumulates.

“We feel very comfortable that Avellino will do well at the public market. The question is, do the Korean investors want to take a ride with us now, because there will come a point where Avellino becomes so big that they will have to start looking at bigger markets which have more liquidity,” said Goyal.

After launching in the US, Avellino Labs will bring the NGS panel to countries where corneal dystrophy and keratoconus patients are most common -- China, India, the Middle East and then the rest of the world. 

Eric Bernabei (The Korea Herald)
Eric Bernabei (The Korea Herald)

In the long term, the company aims to develop gene therapies with CRISPR gene-editing technology and expand its genetic diagnosis to dermatological gene tests.

The company currently makes most of its revenue from cheek-swab ophthalmologic genetic testing in Korea, China and Japan.

Avellino now has just over 70 staffers. Located in Manlo Park in Silicon Valley, the company is in a prime position to recruit the brightest talent, Bernabei said.

As a company founded by a Korean and set up in the US, Avellino has Korean heritage but adheres to global standards.

Bernabei and Goyal said Avellino’s IPO would merge the best of Korea and the US. Its underwriters for the Kosdaq market are Samsung Securities, Mirae Asset and Yuanta Securities.

By Lim Jeong-yeo (