Moderna hauls in $450M to push its pioneering approach to mRNA

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel

Superlatively well-funded biotech Moderna Therapeutics has raised another $450 million in venture cash, planning to staff up and buckle down on a slew of preclinical candidates that promises to transform patients' cells into drug factories.

The latest round, by far the largest in recent memory, comes courtesy of new investors Viking Global Investors, Invus, RA Capital Management and Wellington Management, plus previous backers--and collaborators--AstraZeneca ($AZN) and Alexion ($ALXN). With the sum, Moderna has banked more than $950 million in venture and collaboration cash since its 2011 foundation by Flagship Ventures, and, despite the presence of crossover investors like RA, the biotech insists that it's not planning a near-term IPO.

Moderna's flagship technology has the potential to spur the production of human proteins or antibodies within patient cells, effectively creating an in vivo factory for targeted therapies. The company believes its proprietary approach to messenger RNA has the potential to treat previously undruggable targets in a wide range of disease areas, touting 45 preclinical programs in its pipeline.

Now, with another boatload of cash secured, the Cambridge, MA, biotech plans to dial up its efforts, looking to hire more than 100 scientists and researchers to bolster its existing staff of 145.

"The strong support from our investors is a testament to the incredible work done by our team over the past three years in unlocking the potential of mRNA therapeutics to drive transformational advances for patients," CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement. "With $800 million in cash after this financing, we are moving rapidly to support the exponential growth of our mRNA therapeutics platform with new investments, partnerships and ventures, and are committed to recruiting the best industry talent to support this growth at all levels, including bench scientists, seasoned drug hunters and leaders for our new ventures."

The big figures and big ambitions tied to Moderna's latest fundraise fit right in with the company's brief history. Shortly after coming out of stealth in late 2012, the company inked a $420 million deal with AstraZeneca in which a whopping $240 million of that total came in up-front cash, among the largest down payments in industry history. Shortly thereafter, Moderna pulled in a $120 million second financing round and then quickly banked another $125 million from partner Alexion with the promise of further payments down the road.

Along the way, Moderna has partnered up with DARPA and the Karolinska Institutet on R&D projects stemming from its baseline mRNA technology, and the biotech hived off its efforts in cancer into a subsidiary called Onkaido.

Flagship led Moderna's $40 million seed round in late 2012, helping the company get on its feet with technology based on the work of cofounder and Harvard stem cell expert Derrick Rossi. The company, a 2013 Fierce 15 honoree, then fleshed out its C-suite in convincing Bancel to quit his job as chief of the fast-growing French diagnostics outfit bioMérieux and has since more than quadrupled its staff as it marches toward human trials for its novel technology.

- read the statement

Special Report: FierceBiotech's 2013 Fierce 15 - Moderna Therapeutics