Moderna flips mRNA rare-disease programs into its third new venture unit

Shuffling a thick deck of preclinical programs, Moderna Therapeutics has dealt out a fresh biotech hand for the third in its series of venture units tasked with recruiting a new team to shepherd messenger RNA programs into the clinic.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel

This new operation, dubbed Elpidera, will build on a rare-disease collaboration that Moderna struck with the high-flying biotech Alexion ($ALXN). Alexion has an option on 10 rare disease programs, and Elpidera will work on a set of new programs that are independent of the pact but help leverage the work Moderna is now doing on behalf of Alexion.

Moderna has structured these venture units to quickly build up an array of programs spawned by a prolific development platform. The first was Onkaido, which was launched with $20 million, followed by Valera early this year, which shouldered a collaboration with Merck on developing new messenger RNA vaccines and anti-infectives.  

Moderna has been reluctant to spell out all the financial details involving these units, but CEO Stéphane Bancel tells FierceBiotech in an email that this new venture will fit a familiar mold, accounting for an investment of about $20 million with plans to assemble a new research team of about 20 staffers this year.

This new venture is being led by Greg Licholai, a longtime biotech vet with stints at Proteostasis and Amicus Therapeutics. More recently he was SVP of late-stage research at Quintiles ($Q), joining an industry migration into, and out of, growing CROs.

Moderna's rapid-fire development of new venture units fits into its plan to rapidly scale up a host of preclinical efforts aimed at advancing new categories of messenger RNA drugs, either through partnerships with industry leaders like AstraZeneca ($AZN), Alexion and Merck ($MRK) or these subsidiary units like Elpidera. The Cambridge, MA-based biotech has banked close to a billion dollars in venture and partnering cash in the 4 years since it was founded, giving it plenty of cash to staff up new operations like this.

Moderna has been growing by leaps and bounds. Just recently the company hired ex-Sanofi ($SNY) R&D exec Tal Zaks as its new chief medical officer. They are working on a generation of mRNA therapies the company believes can be adapted to a wide array of ailments. And more of these units and partnerships are likely in the works as well.

"The creation of new venture teams is critical to advancing our decentralized drug development business strategy at Moderna," said Bancel in a statement. "Ventures are the other leg of our strategy to add to the efforts of our pharma and biotech partners. In total, we are driving more than 50 preclinical mRNA programs across cardiovascular, infectious diseases, oncology, and rare diseases."

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