Health, Wellness & Biotech Startups Venture

Oxford Science Enterprises Raises $300M To Search For New Cures

Illustration of biotech lab equipment

Oxford Science Enterprises announced on Monday it raised nearly $300 million in fresh funding, bringing its total raised to $1 billion.

The investment company, which primarily funds startups in the life science space, has close ties with the research university University of Oxford. Through that partnership, Oxford Science Enterprises is fed a healthy slew of scientific discoveries and intellectual property incubated at the school.

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It has a stake in every single company spun out of the university.

One of those companies, Vaccitech, was partly responsible for the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that is being administered in around 20 countries.

Since its inception in 2015, Oxford Science Enterprises has invested in around 80 companies, two of which went public and five of which made trade exits.

The funding will go toward investing in new spinoffs from the university, as well as provide wet labs and other research infrastructure for bioscience-related startups.

A controversial pipeline

At a time when the world was racing to find a vaccine, Oxford University promised to donate any vaccine rights it came up with to drugmakers across the world to create a cheaper, more accessible vaccine for people in developing countries. 

It instead sold exclusive rights to AstraZeneca through a deal made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“They needed to partner with a pharmaceutical company who had expertise in bringing a vaccine to market,” Melinda Gates said in a Washington Post interview.

Oxford University is not the only one in hot water for selling intellectual property to a private pharma company. In the U.S., drug discovery often starts at the university level, where both public and private schools use public dollars to research molecules and potential therapeutics. This process is necessary. Research in its infancy is akin to stumbling around in the dark, and private markets don’t invest without seeing proof of concept.

But as these therapeutics develop, universities will often help spin them off into startups (in which they own a stake) through a department dedicated to commercializing research. After a few rounds of funding, those startups often get swallowed by large pharma companies. The drugs that emerge from decades of research are then sold at a premium, despite using taxpayer dollars to make them.

Healthy funding 

Since the beginning of 2021, a handful of vaccine-related startups have seen $194 million in funding compared to $99 million the year prior, according to Crunchbase data.

This issue is what started Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student organization with chapters in schools across the world that advocates for accessible drug pricing. 

It was born 20 years ago at Yale University, when the school sold an HIV/AIDS drug to pharma giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. Students pushed the school to make it easier for low-income countries to create generics. 

Although taxpayer dollars are pumped into universities to do the research on these drugs, the majority of drug development happens inside the private sector through millions of dollars in funding. For example, Base Genomics, one of Oxford Science Enterprise’s portfolio companies, was acquired by Exact Sciences in 2020 for $410 million for its early-stage cancer detection technology. Another, OMass Therapeutics, raised $100 million in Series B funding in April to launch it into preclinical trials.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

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