New $317M biotech fund takes off at Wellcome Trust

The U.K's wealthiest charity has blueprinted big plans to back fledgling therapeutics and diagnostics companies with a brand new £200 million ($317 million) fund. And the Wellcome Trust has appointed veterans of the venture game to lead the new business, temporarily dubbed Project Sigma.

The charity plans to dig into its deep pockets and bankroll the life sciences fund from its endowment, which ranks among the world's largest. While already backing other venture outfits, Wellcome Trust said the new fund provides an additional mechanism to support early-stage companies that can help usher in new diagnostics and therapies for patients.

Wellcome has tapped Martin Murphy, a former partner at MVM Life Science Partners, to lead its new biotech fund as CEO. And industry veteran Nigel Keen, founder of Deltex Medical, has been named chairman of the fund. The charity plans to ditch the working title Project Sigma and reveal the business name in the near future.

Led by industry heavyweights such as Sir Chris Evans (photo), biotech crusaders in the U.K. have mounted several journeys to boost investment in young drug developers. Evans, as FierceBiotech reported last week, has succeeded in getting the Welsh government to earmark £50 million for a new life sciences fund, with industry players expected to pony up even more to bankroll the endeavor. And after Enterprise Ireland and the National Pensions Reserve Fund backed its new $440 million biotech fund, Sofinnova Ventures plans to open shop in Ireland and hunt for investment opportunities there, Xconomy reported Monday. 

Any new mechanisms for early-stage biotech funding, of course, are going to be met with cheers in the startup world. Newly hatched biotechs can struggle to find new funding, and venture capital players have been called conservative in their investments in drug developers in recent years. Still, there are promising signs of life for early-stage biotech investments in the U.K.

We'll be watching to see how these developments manifest themselves into new rounds of financing for biotech startups.

- here's Wellcome Trust's release
- see the Reuters report

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