COVID’s Effect on mRNA Assets, Part II: Experience (and Quality) Matters
With renewed interest in disparate applications and the subsequent flood of newcomers to mRNA asset development, the focus on quality and experience with regard to mRNA is more important than ever. The value placed on experience in the field may lead to a consolidation of players with unique technology by both those winners of the pandemic as well as groups who were caught flat-footed and feel a need to catch up in the space. As Jake Becraft, co-founder and CEO of Strand Therapeutics puts it “… every pharma board of directors is discussing mRNA and ways to play right now.”
It would not be surprising if Moderna and BioNTech, who have seen their share price increase 5-10x and revenues explode, are considering M&A opportunities to take further advantage of these windfalls. One trend that has arisen is companies using these newfound public valuations to complete transactions with all equity, as in the case of Beam’s acquisition of Guide Therapeutics that was discussed in Part I. While BioNTech has previously made acquisitions like their acquisition of Neon Therapeutics, Moderna has yet to look externally. Beyond these two groups, the market has seen Sanofi acquire Tidal Therapeutics, a Cambridge, MA-based mRNA therapeutic developer whose proprietary nanoparticles are able to achieve cell-specific immune reprogramming in vivo. One has to imagine this was at least in part driven by renewed interest the pandemic has brought to mRNA.
Beyond expanding drug company pipelines, portfolios, and M&A playbooks, the pandemic has underscored the need for a robust supply chain for raw materials and high-quality services and has illuminated just how immature the supply chain has been for mRNA therapeutics. Moderna, for example, had to sign on multiple external partners, such as Lonza, CordenPharma, and Catalent, to source sufficient inputs and filling services. In order for mRNA to address broader applications and populations, a more robust supply chain is needed, and this drives M&A on the raw inputs and services side of the market as well.
In July 2020, Avanti Polar Lipids, one of the premier suppliers of high-quality, validated lipids used to encapsulate the mRNA was acquired by Croda International Plc for $185M plus significant milestones. The revenue multiple of this acquisition is in part due to the excitement in this space, but also because of Avanti’s experience and reputation in the mRNA field. Shortly thereafter, Pfizer signed a deal with Croda worth up to $100M to supply lipids for their COVID vaccine. As another example, in January of this year, AmpTec, a European contract manufacturer of mRNA was acquired by MilliporeSigma. This acquisition expands MilliporeSigma’s potential end-to-end capabilities in supplying the raw inputs, synthesizing, and ultimately formulating mRNA therapeutics on a contract basis for drug developers. While the ability to synthesize and formulate mRNA will continue to expand, those with the experience today are still limited, and as a result, are in high demand.
The ultimate goal for the sake of R&D speed and efficiency is to put all these capabilities under one roof. Though it is extremely unlikely that the next mRNA asset to be approved will even nearly match the historic scale needed in COVID vaccine manufacturing, the ability to turn to a single consolidated mRNA asset manufacturer where predecessors have had to string together three or four raw material providers will provide a much easier path from conception to clinical utilization for future mRNA assets.
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