Eyeing the most lucrative vaccine market, SutroVax nabs $85M and Moncef Slaoui as chairman

California biotech SutroVax raised $85 million to advance its lead pneumococcal shot to midstage testing. (Pixabay)

A little more than a year after it raised $64 million to develop a next-gen pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, SutroVax is back with another raise. And this time, it's tapping an industry veteran to help steer the ship.

Foster City, Calif.-based SutroVax on Thursday unveiled an $85 million series C funding round to advance its lead program, a pneumococcal shot aimed at taking on a multibillion-dollar market now owned by Pfizer's Prevnar 13. The biotech also stepped former GSK vaccines president Moncef Slaoui up to its chairman role after he joined the board nearly one year ago.

It’ll need all the help it can get. SutroVax is targeting a competitive field with some vaccine giants in the mix. Pfizer's megablockbuster Prevnar 13 currently dominates the pneumococcal vaccine market worldwide, and the drug giant is working on a follow-up designed to protect against 20 strains instead of 13. Plus, Merck & Co. is chasing the market with a 15-valent pneumococcal candidate in its pipeline. Those programs are in mid- and late-stage testing, while SutroVax has yet to enter the clinic with its candidate. 

But SutroVax CEO Grant Pickering sees its candidate as a strong contender because it’s designed to provide broader protection than either next-generation shot from Pfizer or Merck, Pickering told FiercePharma in an interview. An Investigational New Drug Application to start human testing is the company's next "deliverable," he said, though Pickering declined to talk about a potential development timeline for the shot. 

"We believe that the vaccine we are advancing could be that dominant vaccine of the future," Pickering said. Pfizer's Prevnar 13 brought in $5.6 billion last year, and Pickering noted that very few vaccines reach blockbuster status.

RELATED: Merck pits its pneumococcal shot against Pfizer's mammoth Prevnar in head-to-head phase 3 

With the new funding—led by new investor TPG Growth—SutroVax said it will put the PCV candidate through midstage testing while expanding research into new disease areas. Since its founding in 2015, the company has raised more than $170 million. 

Even if SutroVax is successful in clinical testing, however, it'll face that formidable competition from top players. But Pickering said the vaccine industry is unique because even a small company can compete with Big Pharma if it can secure a preferential recommendation from CDC vaccine advisers, an achievement he said would represent a "colossal market opportunity." 

"That backdrop creates an opportunity for a smaller company to think about having a legitimate shot for commercializing a vaccine," he said.

Other new investors Medicxi and Foresite Capital joined the series C round, as did each of the biotech's existing investors, including Abingworth, Roche Venture Fund and more. SutroVax also announced an "end-to-end" supply deal with contract manufacturer Lonza for clinical testing batches and a potential advance to the market.

RELATED: SutroVax reels in $64M with plans to take on $7B pneumococcal vaccine market 

Slaoui served for nearly 30 years at GSK, working his way up to the role of R&D head and, later, Glaxo's vaccine chairman. He joined SutroVax's board last July and investment firm Medixci in September 2017. 

In a statement, the vaccine industry veteran said he's "come to fully appreciate the huge potential of SutroVax’s PCV program" after nearly a year on the board. 

"I am thrilled to take on the chairman role and I am confident we will advance this program to a clear clinical proof of concept and ultimately make it available for broad use," Slaoui added.

Pickering has nearly three decades of experience in pharma and biotech, including stints early in his career at Glaxo and Johnson & Johnson, plus time in leadership roles at Mymetics, Dendreon and Juvaris BioTherapeutics.