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Raising capital: how UK biotechs can avoid the ‘worst of both worlds’

Chris Pettigrew’s invited commentary in The Pharma Letter 8th November 2016

For biotechnology, the UK capital market is very much driven by its relationship with other international markets, most notably the US and continental Europe. The specific qualities of these larger markets have a substantial impact on the UK, creating a unique landscape of capital and subsequent innovation. This phenomenon is readily apparent in both early-stage and later-stage pre-IPO biotech fundraising. Faced with difficulties raising capital at home, UK biotechs are increasingly relying on funding from their US cousins rather than their more risk-averse, ‘stay-at-home’ continental European neighbours.

In early-stage VC funding, the UK punches above its weight

Early-stage biotech funding is one area in which Europe seriously underwhelms compared to the US. Globally, the US possesses the most significant abundance of venture capital (VC) firms that invest in early-stage biotech companies. From 2013 to 2015, almost $7bn was invested in more than 550 pre-clinical/discovery-stage companies in the US by over 380 different firms, compared to $1.5bn in just over 150 companies in Europe. In the UK, these numbers fall to around half a billion dollars being invested in 34 companies, an average of approximately 10 early-stage UK companies being funded by UK VC investors per year. This may seem small relative to the US, but the UK commands a third of the early-stage capital invested in Europe, with the average early investment size in the UK nearly $15m – larger than the US.

Early-stage UK biotechs are benefiting from US but not continental European investment

Over the last decade, the US has been vastly ramping up its funding of early-stage UK biotechs. In 2006, US-headquartered firms invested in only two early-stage UK-based biotechs. Fast-forward to 2014, and this number had grown to 17, indicating that UK biotechs are increasingly turning to the US for early-stage equity funding, and US VCs are likewise turning to the UK for novel science.

Intriguingly, these biotechs are not turning to continental Europe, which maintained consistently lackluster investment in just two early-stage UK biotechs in both 2006 and 2014. This trend of UK biotechs finding more success with US rather than continental European investors is at least partially driven by a ‘follow the leader’ investor mentality. Although there are a myriad of funds in Europe, there are fewer early-stage VC firms that lead deals in high frequency, with Seventure and Sofinnova Partners being the most notable exceptions. This thereby triggers a quasi-bottleneck of investment funding while interested firms bide their time for a leader to emerge. Another contributor to this trend may be that continental European firms place more of an emphasis on investing in companies in their own countries or regions, whereas US investors have different priorities.

US crossover investors create later-stage investment windows in the UK

Looking towards later-stage companies, one of the more disconcerting remarks often made by biotech folk in the UK is that if Jim Mellon or Neil Woodford aren’t funding a start-up after its first few rounds, it doesn’t have much of a shot. This may be overly dramatic and simplistic, but it encapsulates well the prevalent sentiment that homegrown capital is scarce, especially if one wants to raise £50m+.

Of particular note to UK companies looking for a significant cash infusion are US crossover investors. Over the last few years, when a firm has wanted to raise substantial funds, a growing trend has been for strong contributions to come from hedge funds, mutual funds, sovereign wealth funds (e.g. the lively Alaska Permanent Fund), and other crossover investors – for the most part based in the US. Examples of UK companies recently funded by these sorts of firms include Adaptimmune, Immunocore, and NuCana. The involvement of these funds has pros and cons, with the advantage being that when these players get involved, ‘hard’ (not to mention interesting) science that needs solving tends to get its well-deserved time in the spotlight. Strong IPOs are often the result. On the other hand, these investors tend to stop ‘crossing over’ when general market sentiments are weak, causing vicissitudes of optimal fundraising ‘windows’ in the markets they tend to invest in.

A creative combination of local and US capital is key to UK biotechs

In one sense the UK gets the worst of the European and US markets, having to deal with the risk-averse, isolationist European ethos and the cyclical nature of later-stage US crossover funders. To handle this, a creative and international focus from an early stage is key. Relationships with US investors should be developed and nurtured as soon as possible, for both early-stage and pre-IPO crossover rounds. Additionally, creative and unorthodox strategies should be considered to access US capital, as exemplified by UK companies such as GW Pharma, which utilised a NASDAQ ADR to access public funds, and Astex Therapeutics, which achieved a NASDAQ listing through a merger.

This certainly does not mean that UK biotechs are in a tough position, however. The UK has local green shoots in Woodford’s and Mellon’s funds, a significant improvement from just a decade ago. The US and, to a lesser extent, continental Europe provide biotechs with a ‘second chance’ can they not raise their full round in the UK, with the highly-developed financial services industry helping to leverage these international relationships. In fact, as long as UK biotechs look broader than the UK capital market, they are well placed to benefit from the stronger and larger US and European capital markets.

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