The mRNA dollars spread beyond Moderna

A flurry of deals over the past five days shows how messenger RNA therapeutics have progressed from an interesting scientific concept to an approach that holds real promise and on which partners and financiers are willing to stake hard cash.

Judging by today’s $110m private raise by Curevac, and Sanofi’s endorsement of BioNTech, it is clear that Moderna Therapeutics is no longer the only mRNA game in town. And, unless conditions become really dire, Curevac could become the first company purely focused on this technology to test the public markets.

“You can be assured that we are IPO-ready,” Franz-Werner Haas, Curevac’s chief corporate officer, told EP Vantage. “In terms of size and visibility where is our core market? It’s the US. So it’s a natural fit to go to the US – there’s no doubt about it.”

The group’s latest private funding supports a US-focused strategy, at least in part. It was led by Baillie Gifford, which while being a UK firm manages funds for several US investors. The size of the round also counts; €100m ($110m) is in itself extraordinary for a European biotech, and the fact that it has gone to an mRNA company is particularly impressive.

The raise has come entirely from new investors, and adds to the roughly €200m of equity funding Curevac has raised so far, plus a $45m cash up-front fee from Boehringer Ingelheim. $76m of equity came in March from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Devini Hopp – Curevac’s biggest investor.

That $76m was geared specifically at building a new, industrial-scale facility whose construction will start next year. “We now have to scale up and broaden our pipeline; we have to add new products. [The new] money will be used to broaden our pipeline,” said Mr Haas.

It will also help automate some of the processes and hire clinical development professionals, but the key focus is on starting new trials “by ourselves or with partners”. BioNTech and Arcturus are two Curevac competitors that have also shown that mRNA partnerships are a reality even if your company is not Moderna.

Perhaps next week’s mRNA conference in Berlin focused executives' minds. BioNTech’s tie-up with Sanofi is worth $60m in up-front and milestone payments, and concerns five synthetic mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies, while Ultragenyx last week gave Arcturus $10m up front to work on rare disease targets.

Limelight

Until quite recently the mRNA limelight had been hogged by Moderna, the group that within three years of being incubated completed a record-breaking $450m venture capital round plus a deal with AstraZeneca worth $240m up front (Vantage Point – The messenger comes calling, July 23, 2015).

While Moderna has tended to focus on using mRNA to generate intracellular proteins for therapeutic applications Curevac has pursued an mRNA-based vaccine approach. This might now change as Mr Haas said Curevac's new cash would also go towards funding therapeutic projects.

Either way Curevac stresses that its technology has been studied in over 300 patients while Moderna is still months away from the clinic.

Not that this has helped it find cash, according to Mr Haas: “On the investor side, during our roadshows, hardly anyone knew about Curevac, out of Tübingen, this little town in Germany. But with business development it’s quite different because we’ve got the clinical data.”

Attracting brand new private shareholders is a sign that this might be changing, as is Curevac’s move to an AG – the equivalent of an Inc in the US – a holding structure where new investors can be brought in without major regulatory or legal hurdles.

“This is the basis for bigger companies, especially if they want to attract the capital markets,” said Mr Haas. “And this is where we are at the moment.”

To contact the writer of this story email Jacob Plieth in London at jacobp@epvantage.com or follow @JacobPlieth on Twitter

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