Hunt­ing uni­corn sta­tus, the co-in­ven­tors of the Ox­ford-As­traZeneca vac­cine raise a mon­ster B round

A small biotech found­ed by the co-in­ven­tors of the Ox­ford-As­traZeneca Covid-19 vac­cine is now swim­ming in cash.

Adri­an Hill

Vac­citech, an Ox­ford spin­out found­ed in 2016 by vac­ci­nol­o­gists Adri­an Hill and Sarah Gilbert, raised $168 mil­lion in a Se­ries B round led by Lon­don in­vest­ment firm M&G and joined by Gilead and Ten­cent, among oth­ers. It’s a ma­jor wind­fall for a com­pa­ny that raised a £20 mil­lion Se­ries A and, ac­cord­ing to the Wall Street Jour­nal, was val­ued at as lit­tle as $86 mil­lion in 2019.

They’ll use the new cash to ad­vance ear­ly clin­i­cal stage pro­grams for treat­ing he­pati­tis B, HPV and prostate can­cer, the com­pa­ny said in a state­ment. The round al­so comes amid re­ports that the biotech is prepar­ing for an IPO that would val­ue them at over $1 bil­lion by year’s end.

Vac­citech de­clined a re­quest for an in­ter­view with CEO Bill En­right. They de­clined to com­ment on IPO plans.

Sarah Gilbert

Af­ter four rel­a­tive­ly qui­et years, Vac­citech be­gan ap­pear­ing in ma­jor news sto­ries last spring, as Hill and Gilbert’s Covid-19 can­di­date emerged as an ear­ly fron­trun­ner in his­to­ry’s most close­ly watched vac­cine race. As Busi­ness­week re­port­ed last Ju­ly, Gilbert found­ed the com­pa­ny af­ter strug­gling to raise funds for a MERS vac­cine she was de­vel­op­ing.

Their first pro­gram, MERS al­so proved to be a pi­lot run for the race to de­vel­op their vac­cine against SARS-CoV-2. The spike pro­teins from the two coro­n­avirus­es are around 50% sim­i­lar and both shots re­ly on the same plat­form Gilbert and Hill de­vel­oped: a chim­panzee ade­n­ovirus, en­gi­neered to car­ry ge­net­ic ma­te­r­i­al in­to cells, where it’ll be ex­pressed as pro­teins that the im­mune sys­tem can learn to rec­og­nize and at­tack.

At the same time, Vac­citech played a small part in a larg­er con­tro­ver­sy around Covid-19 vac­cine de­vel­op­ment. Gilbert and Hill ini­tial­ly fought to en­sure their vac­cine was glob­al­ly ac­ces­si­ble, a tooth-and-nail ef­fort that in­clud­ed thwart­ing a po­ten­tial li­cens­ing deal with Mer­ck for fear they couldn’t sup­ply poor coun­tries. Ox­ford said in April they would pro­vide open, non-ex­clu­sive, no-roy­al­ty li­cens­es for mass scale-up in a pan­dem­ic — an ap­proach ac­tivists wel­comed.

A few weeks lat­er, though, they re­versed course and, at the urg­ing of the Bill & Melin­da Gates Foun­da­tion, ex­clu­sive­ly li­censed the vac­cine to As­traZeneca, Kaiser Health News re­port­ed. Al­though terms were undis­closed, the  Jour­nal lat­er re­port­ed that Ox­ford got $10 mil­lion in cash, $80 mil­lion in mile­stones and a 6% roy­al­ty once the pan­dem­ic is de­clared over.

En­right re­port­ed­ly clashed with Ox­ford over how much Vac­citech should re­ceive, push­ing for a 50-50 split be­cause of the com­pa­ny’s IP on the vac­cine. He got 24%, the Jour­nal re­port­ed.

As­traZeneca has since faced re­peat­ed crit­i­cism over how they de­vel­oped the vac­cine, in­clud­ing for com­bin­ing da­ta be­tween mul­ti­ple stud­ies and pre and post hoc analy­ses and for fail­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with the FDA af­ter safe­ty con­cerns emerged in one tri­al — a fail­ure that de­layed their US tri­al for weeks.

They are now try­ing to ad­dress con­cerns in Eu­rope that their vac­cine can in­crease the risk of rare bleed­ing events. The con­cerns are un­found­ed, EU and out­side sci­en­tists say, but some ex­perts trace part of the pan­ic and con­fu­sion to how As­traZeneca pre­sent­ed their da­ta, be­gin­ning with the first read­out last fall.

At the same time, the phar­ma set the most am­bi­tious pro­duc­tion and ac­cess tar­gets of any Covid-19 vac­cine de­vel­op­er, aim­ing for 3 bil­lion dos­es and sup­ply­ing al­most every dose in the ini­tial roll­out of WHO’s CO­V­AX ini­tia­tive to poor and mid­dle in­come coun­tries.

Vac­citech, mean­while, has pre­pared to turn their sud­den fame in­to for­tune. The Jour­nal re­port­ed last week they were aim­ing for an IPO that would im­me­di­ate­ly val­ue them at $700 mil­lion. Squab­bles be­tween the com­pa­ny and Ox­ford, which owns 10%, have de­layed a list­ing.

The two sides are re­port­ed­ly spar­ring over whether to give in­vestors ac­cess to the As­traZeneca li­cens­ing con­tract, where to list, and how much cred­it Vac­citech should re­ceive for the Covid-19 vac­cine.

An IPO would give a rare wind­fall for a pair of aca­d­e­m­ic founders. As of last year, Hill and Gilbert owned a com­bined 10% stake in the com­pa­ny, a share that would turn two long­time pro­fes­sors in­to in­stant mega-mil­lion­aires if the of­fer­ing goes through.

Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.

Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures)

Ear­ly Zymer­gen in­vestor Jen­ny Rooke re­flects on 'chimeras' in biotech, what it takes to spot a $500M gem

When Jenny Rooke first heard of Zymergen back in 2014, she knew she was looking at something different and exciting. The Emeryville, CA biotech held the promise of blending biology and technology to solve a huge unmet need for cost-effective chemicals — of all things — and a stellar founding team to boot.

But back then, West Coast venture capitalists didn’t see in Zymergen the one thing they were looking for in a winning biotech: therapeutic potential. Rooke, however, saw an opportunity and made her bets. Seven years later, that bet is paying off in a big way.

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Saurabh Saha at Endpoints News' #BIO19

On the heels of $250M launch, Centes­sa barges ahead with an IPO to fu­el its 10-in-1 Medicxi pipeline

Francesco De Rubertis made no secret of IPO plans for Centessa, his 10-in-1 legacy play. Barely two months later, the S-1 is in.

The hot-off-the-press filing depicts the same grand vision that the longtime VC touted when he did the rounds in February: Take the asset-centric mindset that he’s been preaching at Medicxi over the years, and roll up a bunch of biotech upstarts, with unrelated risk profiles, into 1 pharma company that can carry on the development at scale.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Sen­a­tors to NIH: Do more to pro­tect US bio­med­ical re­search from for­eign in­flu­ence

Although Thursday’s Senate health committee hearing was focused on how foreign countries and adversaries might be trying to steal or negatively influence biomedical research in the US, the only country mentioned by the senators and expert witnesses was China.

Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) made clear in her opening remarks that the US cannot “let the few instances of bad actors” overshadow the hard work of the many immigrant researchers in the US, many of which have won Nobel prizes for their work. But she also said, “There is more the NIH can be doing here.”

Steffen Schuster, ITM CEO

Ra­dio­phar­ma re­mains hot as Ger­many's ITM rais­es $109M to ad­vance neu­roen­docrine can­cer pro­gram

The world of radiopharmaceuticals has been heating up over the last few years, and Thursday saw another company focused on the field pull in a new nine-figure raise.

Germany’s ITM, or Isotopen Technologien München, scored a $109 million round of loan financing to push forward its precision oncology pipeline and fund late-stage development for its lead program. As part of the agreement, the loan will convert to shares in the event of future financial or corporate transactions, ITM said.