VCs Are Pouring Billions into Biotech in 2018
By Mark Terry
With tax reform in place and corporations expecting lower taxes and easier access to overseas cash, the biopharma industry focus has been on potential merger-and-acquisition activity. So far, the big deals have been Celgene acquiring Juno Therapeutics for $9 million and Impact Biomedicines for $7 billion, and then Sanofi US buying Bioverativ for $11.6 billion and then Ablynx for $4.8 billion. Then Seattle Genetics, Inc. acquired Cascadian Therapeutics (Formally known as Oncothyreon) for $614 million.
What has gone a bit overlooked is venture capital (VC) investment into biotech this year. Matthew Herper, writing for Forbes, notes that so far this year, VCs and angel investors have invested over $2.8 billion into biotech startups.
Last week alone, VCs and angel investors, according to data provider Pitchbook, invested $758 million into biotech companies. The amount invested so far this year exceeds the amount VCs invested in any year prior to 2014. And the $2.8 billion figure appears not to be up-to-date, with companies like Gelesis, which raised $30 million last week, or Nomad Health and Woebot, which raised $12 million and $8 million, respectively, not included in the total.
Herper writes, “It’s not that there are that many more deals. Instead, investors are putting up much larger sums of money. They are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into companies long before they are due to sell stock on public markets. In 2013, the VC community spread $2.4 billion among 287 companies. The $2.8 billion spent in two months of 2018 went to just 60 start-up firms.”
Just last week, Helix raised $200 million. Helix is working in the same personalized genetic testing space as 23andMe, Inc. and Ancestry.com. Viela Bio, a spinout from AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP, raised $250 million. And Rubius Therapeutics, which is using engineered red blood cells, raised $100 million. Since June 2017, Rubius has raised $220 million, which was launched and funded by Flagship VentureLabs, Flagship Pioneering’s innovation foundry.
The investments have led to very high valuations. One such company, Samumed, which focuses on regenerative medicine, has a valuation of $12 billion—and doesn’t have any approved drugs. “At the company level at this point, as you pointed out, our valuation is already an eye opener,” Samumed’s founder, chairman and chief executive officer, Osman Kibar, said at the Forbes Healthcare Summit in December 2016. “For a pre-revenue company at that valuation, it’s just impossible for us to get a fair market cap if we were to try and go public today.”
Herper notes, “When it comes to high-valuation companies, they tend to be doing things other than developing drugs, which is where biotechnology firms have traditionally delivered big returns. There is Moderna Therapeutics, Inc., which is trying to develop a whole new type of drug that works on RNA, a genetic messenger chemical, not proteins. It’s valued at $7 billion.”
Moderna’s a bit of a tricky company to classify. It excels at raising money, but it doesn’t have any products on the market. In early February, it closed on its seventh private equity financing round worth $500 million. It has about $1.4 billion in cash in addition to access and up to about $250 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a division of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
But it does have 19 therapies in development, 10 of which are in human clinical trials.
VCs usually invest in biotech companies they expect will either eventually be acquired or go public. But that type of investment tends to be smaller and can result in returns that are multiples on the original investment. With the larger investments, that seems less likely to happen. Maybe. Because, as Herper notes, Juno Therapeutics raised $310 million in private financing, with its biggest venture backer, ARCH Ventures, holding onto the stock after the IPO. When Juno was acquired by Celgene for $9 billion, ARCH’s investment was worth $922 million.