The Battle Between Two $1B+ Biotech Unicorns


Therapeutics based on messenger RNA, or mRNA, are a great idea, although in their infancy. mRNA codes for proteins that the body then manufactures. Companies working to develop mRNA-based therapeutics then are working on ways to deliver mRNA that has the body manufacture its own drug, instead of injecting or infusing a drug into the body.

Two of the top companies in the nascent field are German-based CureVac and U.S.-based Moderna Therapeutics. Surprisingly, given the competition, the two companies’ chief executive officers, CureVac’s Ingmar Hoerr and Moderna’s Stephane Bancel, are friends and hold a yearly joint mRNA conference that alternates between Boston and Berlin.

The two executives recently discussed the field and their respective companies in a joint interview.

Hoerr, when asked about the differences between the companies, shifted toward the similarities. He notes that CureVac started small and grew, but Moderna exploded into the field, bringing worldwide awareness with its. “The awareness was there. In Germany, Tubingen (University), it’s off the beaten track. It’s difficult to raise the awareness you need to build up this fantastic technology. Moderna really has that awareness. I see more synergies because you needed some data from us and we needed you in terms of the awareness.”

mRNA has not made it to the market yet. It was only recently that CureVac’s CV9104 failed in a Phase II clinical trial for prostate cancer. It didn’t meet the primary endpoint of improving overall survival, although it did hit a secondary safety endpoint. Many critics have expressed doubt about the technology, particularly because of previous side effects. The CV9104 seemed to overcome that issue, although it didn’t show efficacy.

In the interview, Hoerr notes that failure is a part of bringing drugs to market, and cites the death of an 18-year-old, Jesse Gelsinger,in a clinical trial in 1999 that utilized gene therapy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closed down much of the clinical trials in gene therapies. Bancel said, “For 10 to 15 years, there were no drugs in the clinic.”

Moderna and CureVac aren’t the only companies focused on mRNA therapeutics with products in the clinic. There’s also another German company, BioNTech and a Belgium company, eTheRNA. Although the industry is aware of mRNA, what it really needs is for a company to get proof of concept through the clinic, and it’s a tough nut to crack. Hoerr indicated that once someone gets an mRNA product on the market, it will “turn the whole business upside down.” In some ways, it has the potential to turn the pharma industry from a drug manufacturing business, to an information-business, where the primary business is the information needed to code the body to manufacture its own drugs.

“The big thing is getting the first product in the market,” Hoerr said. “Once the first product is out there, no one can stop us.”

Bancel, not surprisingly, agrees. “This technology is so powerful, there will be over the next 10 to 30 years dozens and dozens of medicines reaching patients. There’s not one company in the world that will be able to do that.”

And of whatever competition the two executives might feel, Hoerr dismisses it. He said, “Of course there’s a lot of room now to argue, to fight, to divert on the IP and things like that. But we need us to drive things forward. It’s a revolution we’re driving. It’s not a really small topic. It’s a real thing. We can transform medicine. We have to unite.”

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