Right after releasing positive results for its novel affordable vaccine manufacturing technology, Belgium’s Univercells closed a €16 million ($18.8 million) series B backed by funds on three continents.
Univercells said the money will support the continued development of its cost-efficient biologics manufacturing platform, with the aim to launch the first products for human use in 2019.
The heavily oversubscribed financing round was led by the public health-focused Global Health Investment Fund (GHIF), which was structured by JPMorgan Chase and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Korea Investment Partners and two Belgian tech funds, The Innovation Fund and Inventures II, along with several private investors, also contributed.
The series B came hard on the heels of encouraging results that validated Univercells’ technology. Univercells designed a self-contained, single-use, automated microfacility for affordable virus production. The pilot program for Sabin inactivated polio vaccine (sIPV) production was developed under a $12 million grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with help from Batavia Biosciences and Merck KGaA.
The program recently achieved a 40-fold increase in polio D-antigen productivity compared to the traditional process. To be specific, using 600-square-meter bioreactor scale, the production line could deliver 525,000 doses of trivalent sIPV per batch, or about 43 million doses a year, according to Univercells’ estimates. What’s more important, the process met its goal of keeping the manufacturing cost within the original goal of $0.15 per dose.
Combined with highly efficient fill-finish operations, Univercells expects that the new sIPV technology could reduce the current polio vaccine sales price by 10-fold.
“The Univercells platform represents a unique win-win opportunity,” said Glenn Rockman, a partner at GHIF and incoming Univercells board member, in a statement. “Its technology has incredible potential to make complex biologics more affordable and more widely accessible, while simultaneously pursuing an enormous commercial market opportunity.”
According to information published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which procures inactivated polio vaccine for 85 countries, the agency currently buys IPV in a single-dose presentation at $2.80, while Sanofi Pasteur is offering a 10-dose presentation at €0.75 per dose for some GAVI-supported countries. However, based on the current tender, all IPVs’ prices will grow in 2019.
UNICEF was running short of IPV supplies for years, having previously been forced to suspend or postpone introduction in 35 countries. It announced (PDF) in May that 2018 is the first year it will be able to fully meet routine requirements, but cautioned that supply remains constrained for catch-up immunization.
With the positive data and new investments, Univercells is concluding technology transfer talks with several biologics manufacturers and healthcare providers in China, India and Latin America. It also plans to deliver the first IPV shots in 2019, while at the same time demonstrating the platform’s application for two other vaccines. Its goal is to expand the technology’s use into other biologics, including monoclonal antibodies and enzyme replacement therapies. The company received a €2.4 million grant in January to pivot its platform for potential biosimilar production and in 2015 received €3 million as early seeding from Takeda.