BARDA looks to get the jump on next pandemic with VC arm targeting 'transformative' tech
Five years after Congress first called for it — and a year and a half after a pandemic broke out — BARDA, the US’s top pandemic preparedness agency, is launching its own VC fund.
The new fund will invest in technologies that could be deployed against future outbreaks or other public health emergencies. It follows a similar model to other public health VCs, such as the Gates Foundation’s fund, giving capital to early-stage companies with promising platform technologies in exchange for assurances they use it partly for infectious diseases that might not have a significant market.
Sandeep Patel, director of BARDA’s division of Research, Innovation and Ventures, name-checked mRNA vaccines, a technology that was being developed in large part for cancer before Covid-19, but which another branch of the government — DARPA — invested in as a pandemic preparedness tool.
It’s “looking at what’s potentially transformative,” he told Endpoints News. “mRNA represented a kind of new class of vaccines. What’s the equivalent of that we can invest in for the future, either in vaccines, treatments or diagnostics? Or even things that cut across those areas.”
Fittingly for a long-overlooked government agency dependent on Congress for cash, the fund is for now modest. BARDA has committed only $10 million this year and $50 million over the next five years to the VC, although Patel said that they hope to raise that up to $500 million over the next decade. He noted that President Joe Biden’s new budget includes $50 million for year one of the effort, should it be passed.
They also plan to match their own investments with private capital. Congress authorized the VC fund in 2016 as part of the 21st Century Cures Act, but Patel said they needed time to figure out its model. After soliciting bids in the fall, the agency announced it will team with GHIC, a Gates-funded non-profit that will look to marshal more conventional VCs to burnish BARDA’s efforts.
Despite its pre-pandemic history, the new fund fits into a broader push to develop technologies, infrastructure and other capabilities to prevent the next pandemic, joining government and academic efforts to develop pan-viral vaccines and industry efforts to reimagine biologics manufacturing, so any future pandemic vaccine or treatment could be rapidly scaled.
It’s a departure from where BARDA has spent much of the funds in the past, when it directed tens of millions of dollars to get individual products — often antibiotics without an immediate commercial market — through late-stage studies.
Patel said they’ll invest in companies — around five to nine per year — that have clearer commercial applications outside of public health emergencies, so it will be sustainable without heavy public funding and ready if a crisis strikes. As with other non-profit venture efforts, any returns from those investments would be funneled back into the fund to be re-invested. He compared it to In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s VC arm.
What could those technologies or companies be? Patel wouldn’t dive into too many specifics, but he threw out needle-free vaccines, which BARDA has already modestly invested in, and new methods for rapidly scaling manufacturing — anything that could turned around faster for Covid-28, or whatever strikes next.
“There’s a lot, there’s a long list here, we’re in the process of setting priorities,” Patel said. “Clearly Covid-19 has showed us some lessons”
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