Gates Foundation bets $52M on CureVac's mRNA promise

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is throwing its weight behind CureVac, a German biotech working to transform patients' cells into drug factories, committing $52 million in hopes of crafting vaccines for the developing world.

The sum, which marks the foundation's largest equity investment, will support CureVac's work on messenger RNA (mRNA) therapies that spur the production of human proteins within patient cells, potentially treating disease from inside the body. In tandem with the Gates Foundation's move, long-standing CureVac backer dievini Hopp BioTech, founded by billionaire Dietmar Hopp, is making an additional $24 million equity investment as well.

Now, with the foundation's backing and an infusion of cash, CureVac is working to advance its mRNA platform, earmarking some of the funds for the construction of an industrial-scale manufacturing facility that can crank out the complicated therapeutics. Separately, the Gates Foundation has promised undisclosed additional cash to support work on mRNA-based vaccines for viral, bacterial and parasitic infectious diseases, beginning with rotavirus and HIV.

Under the terms of the agreement, CureVac has the right to market any Gates Foundation-funded products on its own or through licenses in the developed world, but the organization's support is contingent on the biotech making vaccines available "at an affordable price in poor countries," the foundation said.

The investment is a major step forward for CureVac, whose pioneering approach to vaccines has helped it nail down lucrative partnerships with Sanofi ($SNY) and Boehringer Ingelheim. And the Gates Foundation's interest marks another high-profile cosign for the broad promise of mRNA therapies, following Merck's ($MRK) $100 million gamble on Moderna Therapeutics and its wide-ranging take on the field.

Hopp, like Gates, got his start in the computing business, and he sees similarly disruptive potential in mRNA, which was long considered an iffy bet in biotech R&D.

"When I first met CureVac's founders 10 years ago, their vision and technology reminded me of the beginnings of the software industry: mRNA is like software that is able to teach the body to reprogram itself in order to fight cancer and infectious disease," Hopp said in a statement. "Even today I am not aware of any other biomolecule with such versatile potential."

- read the statement