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.
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.
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.