Biotech uni­corn Mod­er­na gam­bles $110M on a ground­break­ing mR­NA man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ty, blue­prints plant #2

Start­ing in a few weeks, Mod­er­na will be­gin work on the biggest biotech man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ty in the world ded­i­cat­ed to ear­ly stage R&D, pro­duc­ing its mes­sen­ger RNA drugs for every­thing from tox work through Phase II stud­ies. And with the first crit­i­cal round of clin­i­cal da­ta due to ar­rive in H1 2017, Mod­er­na CEO Stephane Ban­cel says the biotech is al­ready blue­print­ing an­oth­er fa­cil­i­ty that may well dwarf the first $110 mil­lion man­u­fac­tur­ing project.

Ban­cel and his ex­ec­u­tive crew have land­ed a site for their first 200,000-square-foot fa­cil­i­ty in Nor­wood, MA, not far from the biotech’s head­quar­ters in Cam­bridge. And char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly, they’re mov­ing as fast as they can to get the dirt fly­ing.

Mod­er­na is think­ing big about every as­pect of drug de­vel­op­ment. That starts with rais­ing cash: Now close to $2 bil­lion. Staff: 460 and grow­ing fast. And pipeline projects: 11. There are al­so four spin­out ven­tures work­ing on per­son­al­ized can­cer vac­cines and on­col­o­gy, in­fec­tious dis­eases and rare ail­ments.

The score on hu­man tri­al out­comes? Ze­ro so far, but that will soon change.

This new fa­cil­i­ty will even­tu­al­ly be able to make up to 100 mR­NA lots an­nu­al­ly, a num­ber that won’t mean much to any­one not schooled in biotech man­u­fac­tur­ing. But the ex­pla­na­tion pro­vides some in­sights in­to what Mod­er­na has set out to achieve.

In the first dozen pro­grams to make it to the clin­ic, ex­plains Ban­cel, in­ves­ti­ga­tors can mix mR­NA in a sin­gle vial, or lot. But in the very near fu­ture, they’ll need sev­er­al dif­fer­ent anti­gens in the same vial, or sev­er­al lots. For one up­com­ing vac­cine study for a par­tic­u­lar­ly tough virus that Mod­er­na plans to tack­le, it will take sev­en.

And af­ter Phase II, what then?

Ban­cel says he is al­ready look­ing on build­ing out the man­u­fac­tur­ing Mod­er­na will need for Phase III and com­mer­cial quan­ti­ties, a project that could con­sume any­where from $200 mil­lion to $400 mil­lion. Once the first clin­i­cal da­ta starts to come in, he says, some fast-mov­ing projects could move in­to Phase III in less than a year. And that will spur more ex­pan­sion.

Mod­er­na has been work­ing with a va­ri­ety of groups, in­clud­ing a team from GE, to ramp up new tech­nol­o­gy to make the man­u­fac­tur­ing work more ef­fi­cient, with­out get­ting tripped up by de­con­t­a­m­i­na­tion pit­falls.

“We try to use a lot of equip­ment that can be reused,” says the CEO, “so that you can go much faster.”

These man­u­fac­tur­ing projects in the Boston area have be­come a plum catch in the eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment field. And for one ob­vi­ous rea­son: More jobs. The plan at Mod­er­na now is to shift 100 of their work­ers to the new site once it be­comes op­er­a­tional in ear­ly 2018. And they’ll add 100-plus em­ploy­ees once it’s in full swing.

The gam­ble, and it’s as big as Mod­er­na’s goals, is that they can build a glob­al op­er­a­tion from scratch, with a full suite of tech­nolo­gies and fa­cil­i­ties that can keep pace with its am­bi­tions — and, they hope, with­out any com­pa­ny-end­ing blowups along the way.

Mod­er­na’s been able to stay on track to that goal, gain­ing big in­vestors like As­traZeneca along the way who have bought in to the vi­sion. And un­like vir­tu­al­ly every oth­er biotech in ex­is­tence, they built up their ex­ten­sive in­fra­struc­ture with­out a sin­gle shred of hu­man clin­i­cal da­ta to prove that their drugs ac­tu­al­ly work in peo­ple by spurring pa­tients’ cells to pro­duce drugs.

The da­ta, though, are com­ing. And Mod­er­na be­lieves it can quick­ly start to rack up a wide range of tri­al re­sults, lay­ing out a smor­gas­bord of da­ta rather than plug along on 2-3 lead proof-of-con­cept pro­grams.

Mod­er­na is al­so work­ing to stay out front of mR­NA com­peti­tors like BioN­Tech, which co­in­ci­den­tal­ly just struck a ma­jor col­lab­o­ra­tion pact with Genen­tech. What start­ed out as a biotech race has quick­ly swelled in­to a show­down that in­cludes some of the world’s biggest drug de­vel­op­ers. Wa­gers rarely get this big, this ear­ly.

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Jackie Fouse, Agios CEO

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