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Billion Dollar Unicorns: Moderna Therapeutics A Promising, Unproven Bet

Posted on Monday, Jun 6th 2016

According to a ResearchandMarkets report, the global protein therapeutics market is expected to reach $208 billion by the end of 2020. Moderna Therapeutics is a startup in the field that has captured the imagination of VCs and waltzed into the Billion Dollar Unicorn Club.

Moderna Therapeutics’ Offerings and History

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna Therapeutics is a pioneer in the development of a new class of drugs made of messenger RNA (mRNA) that have the potential to treat all kinds of diseases ranging from cancer, diabetes, and heart disease to viral disease. If someone is unable to produce enough of a protein, they can be injected with modified mRNA Therapeutics to direct the body’s cellular machinery to produce those proteins or antibodies and reverse the disease. The main value proposition of mRNA Therapeutics is its potential to address a myriad of serious diseases that are not treatable through current approaches.

In 2010, stem-cell biologist Derrick Rossi of Boston Children’s Hospital and his post doc Luigi Warren filed to patent their method for making stem cells by side-stepping the cell’s defenses. Their work attracted bio engineer and entrepreneur Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Noubar Afeyan, chief executive of Cambridge biotech investment firm Flagship Ventures. They roped in cardiovascular biologist Kenneth Chien of Harvard Medical School and Karolinska Institute in Stockholm — and together the four launched Moderna Therapeutics in September 2010.

In 2015, Moderna Therapeutics became a clinical stage company with the initiation of its first Phase I study for mRNA 1440 and submission of a regulatory filing for a second clinical program, mRNA 1851. By the end of 2015, it had 92 drugs in development. It has formed venture companies to focus on individual clinical trials for mRNA-based treatments. Onkaido Therapeutics and Valera focus on oncology and infectious diseases, respectively. Elpidera and Caperna focus on rare diseases and personalized cancer vaccines, respectively.

Moderna Therapeutics has also partnered with heavy weights in the industry like AstraZeneca, Merck, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and Alexion, among others. It is moving toward the clinic with MRK 1777, a Merck-partnered vaccine, and mRNA 1388, a DARPA-backed infectious disease treatment. It is working with Alexion on ALXN 1540, a therapy for the rare Crigler-Najjar syndrome, and with AstraZeneca on AZD 8601, an mRNA treatment designed to repair heart damage.

Moderna Therapeutics’ Financials

Moderna Therapeutics ended the year 2015 with about $802 million in cash. It is planning to expand its current workforce of about 320 people to about 500 by the end of 2016.

Moderna Therapeutics has till now raised $1.2 billion in funding through financing activities and commercial partnerships. Its total venture funding is $650 million in four rounds from investors including Alexion Pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca, Flagship Ventures, Invus Group, RA Capital Management, Viking Global Investors, Wellington Management, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Its latest round of funding was held in January 2015 when it raised $450 million at a valuation of $3 billion.

While the premise of Moderna Therapeutics is promising, it is as yet an unproven bet. It faces several challenges that a typical biotech company would face such as the amount of time taken to bring a drug to market. However, one main advantage it has over others is that its mRNA can focus on fighting several diseases at once.

More investigation and analysis of Unicorn companies can be found in my latest Entrepreneur Journeys book, Billion Dollar Unicorns. Unicorns will also be discussed with some special guests during our 1M/1M Roundtable programs over the next few weeks. To be a part of the conversation, please register here. The term Unicorn was coined in a TechCrunch article by Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures.

This segment is a part in the series : Billion Dollar Unicorns


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