Why mRNA is the Next Big Disruptor for Life Sciences

September 9, 2021

This is part one of a three-part series on mRNA innovation.

Less than a year ago, the world had never seen an approved mRNA therapy. Fast forward to today and nearly every biopharmaceutical manufacturer has announced, alone or in partnership, their entrée into mRNA-based research and development. Clearly, the race is on. And the race results could significantly impact how mRNA-based treatments go to trial, go to market, and transform patients’ lives. Which biopharma start-ups and pharmaceutical giants will pull ahead, and which ones will fade at the finish line?

As consultants and researchers who work with some of the leading life sciences companies, we’ve been thinking a lot about what mRNA technology means for our clients, including brand leaders, sales and innovation teams, and marketers. Regardless of your company’s size, specialization, or products, chances are that mRNA is the next big disruptor.

With this in mind, we wanted to offer a perspective on the next generation of mRNA innovation and its impact across three key areas. In this three-part series we’ll look at the rapidly evolving mRNA landscape and the implications for:

  1. Business development
  2. Clinical activity
  3. Patient engagement

First up, what you should know about how mRNA is shaking up mergers, acquisitions, and investments.

How mRNA Innovation is Shaking Up Business Development for Small Biopharma & Big Pharmaceuticals

COVID-19 disrupted so many aspects of our lives. Apart from our waistlines, it changed how we socialize, travel, learn, and work. While some changes were provisional, others are here to stay. When a temporary disruption becomes an accepted norm, it is usually because the change is supported by a technology that solves an unaddressed problem and makes us more efficient. Take, for example, Electronic Health Records (EHR). This technology solved a real problem: replacing the clutter and often illegible paper records. The result was quicker and higher quality patient care. In the pharmaceutical industry, mRNA is now doing something similar.

In the past year we’ve seen thousands of articles explaining, to varying degrees of success, what mRNA is, how it works, why it matters. The common thread in the literature is that

  1. mRNA-based biologics can be manufactured faster
  2. their production can be easily scaled
  3. they seem to generate a better immune response

The speed at which we will be able to develop and test mRNA vaccines will be unprecedented. The urgency of the pandemic meant that what used to take a decade shrunk to less than 12 months. While lab-to-market timelines may not be quite this fast for future mRNA therapies, we still expect successful mRNA therapies to move through to regulatory approval significantly faster than traditional therapies.

Nonetheless, investors are hungry for an mRNA play in their portfolios. These three benefits — speed, scale, and better results — are making mRNA the hottest commodity in the pharmaceutical industry. Wall Street is so bullish on mRNA that in early August 2021, Moderna’s valuation surpassed that of well-established companies such as Amgen, GSK, and Merck.

More than $4 billion in mRNA investments have been announced by the traditional vaccine players over the last six months alone. While it seems everyone wants in on mRNA, business strategies differ. Take, for example, Pfizer and BioNTech. After its successful partnership with BioNTech, Pfizer announced plans to forge its own path and build in-house mRNA capabilities. They are investing an additional $600 million in mRNA research. Meanwhile, the other large traditional vaccine brand owners with less mRNA momentum are vying for smaller partners. GSK has partnered with CureVac, and Sanofi announced plans to acquire mRNA pioneer Translate Bio for $3.2 billion. Both are banking on nimble innovators to deliver. Prior to its recent acquisition, Sanofi had already pledged $476 million annually for in-house mRNA-based vaccine development. Indeed, three of the four largest pre-pandemic vaccine brand-owners now have some sort of foray into mRNA. They see where the future is going. We can assume it’s only a matter of time before the remaining player – Merck – makes its own announcement.

The new entrants are aggressively expanding their footprint. Moderna plans to invest up to $400 million by year’s end to increase its COVID vaccine production capacity to 1.4 billion doses. The company is also in talks to invest $200 million in a manufacturing facility in South Korea. BioNTech is spending an additional $200 million on R&D and has at least six candidates entering clinical trials for various cancers.

The breakneck pace of mRNA innovation is driving the speed of business development. Grail Insights helps businesses chart their mRNA play through solutions such as Funding Trackers and Tech Scans. A Funding Tracker can help you know where fertile opportunities lie and when they are edging past their prime. Tech Scans help clients understand where to play and how to win. A Tech Scan looks at disruptive technologies early in their development and predicts their desirability, feasibility, and viability.

Send us a note to talk about other ways we can help you stay on the right side of disruption.

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Next in the series, a look at mRNA clinical activity, how mRNA is transforming the traditional clinical trial model, and the potential impact on your business.

Ryan Doornbos, Life Sciences
Ryan Doornbos
Managing Director, Life Sciences

Ryan Doornbos leads Escalent’s Life Sciences group.  From his first engagement 20 years ago helping a medical device company launch a pioneering drug-eluting stent through his engagements today, Ryan applies a strategic lens to how he approaches the challenging business problems his clients face. His experience covers vaccines, diabetes, cardiology, rare diseases, and oncology, among others. He has advised clients from the business development and innovation process, through the product launch cycle, and into on-going operational challenges faced by the ever-changing industry.  A strategy consultant by training, Ryan is based in Toronto, Canada.  By nights and weekends, he puts his Sommelier Certificates to work for friends and family, while squeezing in time for cycling and skiing.

Tim Taylor, Life Sciences
Tim C. Taylor
Vice President, Life Sciences

Tim Taylor is a vice president in Escalent's Life Sciences group, with more than 15 years of consultative experience. He has helped Life Sciences, CPG, and Sports & Entertainment companies minimize the risk of strategic business decisions and uncover new growth opportunities. With client- and supplier-side strategic consulting experience emphasizing new market access, brand positioning and optimizing operations, Tim is a relentless value provider and revenue contributor to industry-leading organizations. He earned a bachelor's degree in economics, business management from The City University of New York, CCNY.  Away from the office, Tim enjoys photography and is an avid cyclist.

Shiv Nayyar, Life Sciences
Shiv Nayyar
Director, Life Sciences

Shiv Nayyar is a director in Escalent’s Life Sciences group. He brings 12 years of experience in strategic insights consulting for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry. Shiv specializes in opportunity assessments, product launches and go-to-market strategies. He has worked in four countries and managed large-scale global research and consulting projects. He is pursuing his Executive MBA from Kellogg, Northwestern University and has a post graduate diploma from Uppsala Monitoring Centre, WHO. When not working, you will find him at the nearby driving range or on the course with his golf buddies.