Belfast Telegraph

Zika vaccine research firm attracts private funding offers after clinching grant

Private investors are queueing up to fund a small British pharmaceutical company that holds promise of developing the world's first Zika vaccine.

Cambridge-based firm Excivion has gained attention since clinching a Government grant worth £500,000 that will help jump-start vaccine development for the mosquito-borne virus.

Chief executive and immunologist Peter Laing says he has never seen this kind of interest from private investors during his 22-year career.

"I've had people contact me on the website, offering to fund the company. I've never heard of that before, never heard of it in the history of my work in the biotechnology industry," he told the Press Association.

Excivion is seeking private backers to keep research going once government funding runs out.

The half a million pound grant, issued by the Small Business Research Initiative and Innovate UK, is meant to be spent within 12 months.

It is part of the Department of Health's plans to invest up to £10 million in two competitions that would prompt development of vaccines for infectious diseases and technologies.

The company is aiming to bring a vaccine to market by 2023, and Excivion staff are working around the clock to develop it.

Mr Laing has contracted around 30 scientists across India, the US, Germany and the UK to supplement the company's two-person operation back in Cambridge.

This strategy has allowed Mr Laing to recruit the best industry specialists and keep costs down.

In mid-August, the company announced a partnership with US-based Nasdaq-listed pharma firm Xenetic Biosciences to develop technologies to deliver the vaccine.

Excivion is working with ''micro-encapsulation'' technology that could increase vaccine strength and hopes to eliminate the need for refrigeration, which would allow the vaccine to be stockpiled for pandemic emergencies.

"There's a lot of moral pressure to do everything right, and to make sure that you've thought everything through," he said.

"It's been been quite stressful actually, because we want to take best advantage of the funding and do right by the British public who ultimately fund this work."

Mr Laing and his business partner have put their own money into the company, but he says it is small in comparison.

The chief executive is confident Excivion will secure further funding, given the level of interest so far.

Mr Laing stopped short of revealing the total number of private offers Excivion has received, but said the company is now eyeing alternative fundraising methods.

"In fact we're even considering setting up a parallel charity which would ensure that 100% of those funds could be applied to research and development."

There are plans to license the potential Zika vaccine "quite early" to a larger pharmaceutical company that would commit to bringing the product to market.

Multiple licenses could be issued in a bid to keep costs low for the countries that need the Zika vaccine most.

However, the chief executive made clear that Excivion is not looking for a buy-out.

"I want to be a larger company but I don't want to sell the company. I want the company to be in Britain, creating employment, and developing new vaccines."