When VCs hand out mega-rounds to Vir and Gos­samer, are they bet­ting on the jock­ey or the horse?

Fol­low­ing a pe­ri­od of un­prece­dent­ed re­turns for bio­phar­ma in­vestors, flush VCs are sink­ing big­ger and big­ger rounds of cash in­to com­pa­nies whose pipelines are still in their in­fan­cy. Tak­ing this trend to a new lev­el is an in­creas­ing­ly pop­u­lar move to back biotech ex­ec­u­tives who are known to be star per­form­ers with mega-rounds ris­ing north of $100 mil­lion – even if their pipelines lack a star pro­gram.

There was a time when a few mil­lion bucks would back a promis­ing as­set, and then — if the pro­gram proved worth­while — in­vestors would re­cruit a star team. But back­ing man­age­ment be­fore sci­ence is a trend that’s pick­ing up steam, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al in­vestors I met at JP Mor­gan this year.

Ni­na Kjell­son, Canaan

Some con­sid­er these bets ex­ceed­ing­ly risky, as VCs are es­sen­tial­ly hand­ing the C-suite cash and hop­ing they dig up some­thing use­ful in re­turn. Oth­ers ar­gue the move means in­vestors are play­ing it safe with this strat­e­gy. Af­ter all, a res­olute CEO root­ing around for sev­er­al op­tions to pro­vide a re­turn may be more de­pend­able than the some­times-finicky sci­ence of a one-star pro­gram.

“It’s a clas­sic de­bate in the VC world,” said Canaan’s gen­er­al part­ner Ni­na Kjell­son. “Do we in­vest in the jock­ey or the horse?”

Com­pa­nies like ARCH Ven­ture Part­ners and Flag­ship Pi­o­neer­ing of­ten bet on the jock­eys.

The trend means one thing for cer­tain: in­vestors’ wal­lets are filled to the brim, and their strate­gies are chang­ing as a re­sult.

The plan, of course, is to get trust­ed lead­ers in po­si­tions where they can de­liv­er one (or hope­ful­ly many) re­turn. This has evolved in­to a busi­ness mod­el in which an um­brel­la com­pa­ny finds promis­ing as­sets to ad­vance, and then spins them out in­to sep­a­rate en­ti­ties to see if the sci­ence sinks or swims. That way, one fail­ure doesn’t tank the whole en­ter­prise and the vet­er­an ex­ec­u­tives can dri­ve on.

When your re­sume war­rants mega-rounds

George Scan­gos

We saw this re­cent­ly with the eye-pop­ping fi­nan­cial back­ing of Vir Biotech­nol­o­gy, which went from launch to rais­ing over a half-bil­lion in seed mon­ey in its first year. In­vestors are bank­ing on a vet­er­an ex­ec­u­tive team that in­cludes CEO George Scan­gos, the for­mer boss at Bio­gen and Ex­elix­is.

Then there was the re­cent deal with Gos­samer Bio, a start­up led by two for­mer Re­cep­tos ex­ec­u­tives that emerged ear­li­er this month with $100 mil­lion in seed mon­ey. The com­pa­ny is be­ing tight-lipped about what as­sets they al­ready have, but we do know the plan is to snatch up ear­ly- and late-stage as­sets and de­vel­op them un­der spin­out en­ti­ties.

To some de­gree, De­nali fits in this pic­ture, too. The com­pa­ny’s pipeline is chalk-full of pre­clin­i­cal as­sets, and yet the com­pa­ny raised mega-rounds to get start­ed and then scored a $287 mil­lion IPO.

In­vestors shore up risk by bet­ting on re­peat teams

Jay Lichter, Aval­on

Jay Lichter, man­ag­ing part­ner at Aval­on Ven­tures, said he sees this as a risk re­duc­tion strat­e­gy on the part of the in­vestor.

“It re­duces risk a lot when you’re back­ing a group who’s proven to ex­e­cute on pro­grams,” Lichter said. “Give them a bunch of mon­ey, toss them a few pro­grams, and the chance that all will fail is close to ze­ro. One will turn in­to a ven­ture re­turn.”

Both Lichter and seed stage in­vestor Wal­ter Moos of Shang­Phar­ma agreed that the trend is an in­di­ca­tion of in­vestors with heavy pock­ets.

Wal­ter Moos, Shang­Phar­ma

“This is prob­a­bly one of the most di­verse fi­nan­cial ecosys­tems I’ve seen in my 35 years in the in­dus­try,” Moos said. “[VCs] need to in­vest more mon­ey per as­set be­cause they have so much more cap­i­tal to de­ploy. There’s a lim­it on how many com­pa­nies the part­ners can han­dle, so the deal size gets big­ger.”

It’s al­so pos­si­ble that VC firms are di­ver­si­fy­ing, Lichter said. In­vestors might con­sid­er vet­er­an-led teams as more ma­ture ven­tures that de­serve pri­vate eq­ui­ty-sized deals in­stead of VC-sized deals.

Big bets or pub­lic­i­ty play?

Are mega-rounds for nascent pipelines smart? Kjell­son said she’s not a big fan of huge seed rounds, even if the team is ex­pe­ri­enced.

“I’m a lit­tle bit more sober these days to make a bet on a team with a $100 mil­lion check ver­sus a $10 mil­lion to $15 mil­lion check,” Kjell­son said.

Of course, many of these deals are mile­stone gat­ed, she says, and as Moos points out, “like biobucks, lots of that mon­ey nev­er shows up.” Moos thinks these mega-sized rounds can some­times be a play for pub­lic­i­ty.

“It can draw more top man­age­ment, co-in­vestors, or even grab the at­ten­tion of Big Phar­ma,” Moos said.

Lichter tends to agree with Kjell­son. He says too much mon­ey in the bank makes biotechs slug­gish as they be­gin to op­er­ate like a “small big phar­ma, with all the bu­reau­cra­cy and po­lit­i­cal struc­ture.”

“I’ve nev­er been a fan of big fi­nanc­ing,” Lichter said. “I think it draws you away from what’s great about biotech, which is be­ing nim­ble. Be­ing close to death. It’s shock­ing how hard peo­ple will work when they have six months of cash and they have to get to work to stay alive.”


Il­lus­tra­tion: Shut­ter­stock

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.