Gates Foundation’s $100M-a-year nonprofit biotech takes flight

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has held a coming-out party for its nonprofit biotech startup. Equipped with plans to build a 120-person team and spend $100 million a year, the Gates Medical Research Institute (MRI) will turn drug industry expertise and processes on intractable diseases that kill millions of people annually in low- and middle-income countries.

Details of Gates MRI first emerged more than 12 months ago, but at that point the project was yet to move past the operational design phase. Now, the R&D operation has temporary digs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a leadership team lured from companies including Baxalta, Merck and Shire by the promise of developing products solely for patients, not profits. The nonprofit model and backing of the Gates Foundation will enable the group to spend big sums on uncommercial indications. 

Gates Foundation is initially going after malaria, tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases, conditions that kill more than 3 million people a year but are low on the list of priorities at commercial research groups. The plan is to source drugs, vaccines, antibodies and other assets from preclinical candidate selection onward and take them up to clinical proof of concept.

By focusing on the translational stage of drug development, Gates MRI stands to validate prospects that would otherwise languish in preclinical pipelines because they are shaky business bets. Once it has derisked the assets, Gates MRI will team up with development partners, manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries and other groups to bring products to market. Gates MRI will tie commercial partners to commitments regarding volumes, prices and timelines, STAT reports.

Such considerations are still some way down the line. For now, Gates MRI is building up its team and a portfolio of opportunities. The nonprofit R&D shop has 22 employees listed on LinkedIn and plans to grow its headcount to 80 to 120 people. Funding will tick up over that period, too, topping out at a planned $100 million a year.

The projects the team and money will support are still taking shape. Gates MRI has discussed plans to test the BCG vaccine in adolescents. The vaccine is already given to protect children from TB but the efficacy of these early jabs wanes. Building on a study that linked a booster shot in adolescence to lower infection rates, Gates MRI wants to find out whether changing the immunization regimen could reduce TB cases and deaths.

Investing in a large clinical trial of a vaccine with minimal commercial prospects would make no sense for a profit-driven R&D groups. Freed from commercial pressures, Gates MRI can focus squarely on a different number: the 1.7 million people who die from tuberculosis each year.