Moderna Debuts Third mRNA Startup Elpidera, Will Continuing Hiring Plan

Moderna Therapeutics, Inc. Debuts Third mRNA Startup Elpidera, Will Continuing Hiring Plan
May 12, 2015
By Alex Keown and Riley McDermid, Breaking News Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – To bolster treatment of rare diseases, Moderna Therapeutics launched its third pharmaceutical spinout with Elpidera, a company focused exclusively on the advancement of mRNA-based medicines for the treatment of rare diseases in small patient populations. The company said in January it will also hire 100 new staffers in 2015, plans which remain unchanged.

Which rare diseases Elpidera will first focus on was not disclosed in this morning’s announcement about the spinout. The company did say Elpidera’s research would not conflict with other deals Moderna already has in place through strategic partnerships with other pharmaceutical companies. In 2014 Moderna entered into a strategic partnership with Alexion to develop 10 rare disease product options, but the company stressed Elpidera’s research will not conflict with the work currently being done with Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. .

“Elpidera will advance programs that are independent from the Alexion programs and proprietary to Moderna, while also supporting Alexion in its efforts to leverage the Moderna technology platform through the existing agreement,” the company said in a statement.

Although Moderna hasn’t yet had a commercial drug launch, the company has created three ventures targeting various healthcare markets. The company launched Onkado Therapeutics to research and develop cancer treatments and in January, the company launched Valera to focus on infection diseases. Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of Moderna, said the company’s venture strategy is “driving more than 50 preclinical mRNA programs across cardiovascular, infectious diseases, oncology, and rare diseases.”

Moderna has invested about $20 million into each of its spinouts. After raising $450 million in new funding in January, which gave the company about $900 million in reserves, Moderna is certainly flush with cash to explore mRNA research in those various fields.

Through those spinouts, Moderna has struck several key partnerships with larger pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca PLC to research and develop cardiovascular and oncology therapies, the afore-mentioned Alexion Pharmaceuticals and a deal worth about $100 million to research infectious diseases with Merck & Co. The company’s venture strategy is “enabling the rapid advancement of new mRNA medicines across different modalities and therapeutic areas at an unprecedented pace and scale,” the company said. Moderna’s mRNA-based medicines designed to directly utilize the body's natural processes to enable the in vivo production of therapeutic proteins. Moderna’s mRNA therapies give the parent company and its subsidiaries the flexibility to develop therapies for more than 7,000 diseases, the company said.

Greg Licholai was named Elidera’s new president. Before joining the Moderna family he was a vice president at Quintiles, Inc. and also served as chief operating officer of Proteostasis, a private biotechnology company. While an executive at Amicus Therapeutics, Inc. , Licholai helped drive three products into human clinical trials for orphan indications and take the company public in 2007

“As it has demonstrated in other therapeutic areas, mRNA Therapeutics hold great potential to serve rare patient populations in a way never before seen. Our approach offers hope in a novel and powerful platform to potentially affect the many thousands of underserved patients suffering from hundreds of diseases with extraordinarily high unmet medical needs,” Licholai said in a statement.

In January, Moderna announced a major new staffing plan. Moderna Therapeutics had a booming first week of 2015, announcing Monday it has raised $450 million in a new round of funding, money it will use to hire 100 new staffers, drug development experts and scientists in the coming months.

Moderna said that the funding from new investors Viking Global Investors, Invus, RA Capital Management, and Wellington Management Company, as well as existing investors AstraZeneca PLC (AZN) and Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. , will be used to advance its modified mRNA to create cellular “machinery” to make therapeutic proteins in vivo. Moderna has long been a poster child for Big Biotech firm AstraZeneca, with the British company so far sinking millions into its promising new field of gene therapy.

The company said it will add the 100 new jobs to its existing roster of 145 employees and will do the hiring in the next few months.

To date Moderna has raised an unusually high amount of seed capital in a sector where most companies of this type and size would have already exited or deciding to file an initial public offering. Perhaps because it was founded by a venture capital shop, Flagship VentureLabs, in 2011, Moderna has so far kept mum about a possible sale or IPO, though that could change if it sees success with its current clinical trial candidates.

For now, the company said it is focusing on partnerships, a stratagem that has brought them a lot of success in recent years, with existing deals already in place with Karolinska Institute (KI) and Karolinska University Hospital (KUH), announced in October 2014. That collaboration is part of a larger initiative between AstraZeneca, Alexion and DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), where Moderna is in active development of 45 preclinical programs in oncology, cardiovascular disease, rare diseases and infectious diseases.

"The strong support from our investors is a testament to the incredible work done by our team over the past three years in unlocking the potential of mRNA Therapeutics to drive transformational advances for patients," said Stephane Bancel, president and CEO of Moderna, in a statement when it received its last round. "With $800 million in cash after this financing, we are moving rapidly to support the exponential growth of our mRNA Therapeutics platform with new investments, partnerships and ventures, and are committed to recruiting the best industry talent to support this growth at all levels, including bench scientists, seasoned drug hunters and leaders for our new ventures."

Moderna has also launched Onkaido, its own exclusively focused oncology venture, and will likely use some of today’s funding to plough back into its early-stage drug discovery and development programs in place with its partners.

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