Colchester-based biotech startup raises $21m in funding for mRNA production

Colchester-based startup Vernal Biosciences is looking to expand. Courtesy of Vernal Biosciences

Vernal Biosciences, a Colchester-based mRNA manufacturing startup, plans to expand its facilities and staff in Vermont with $21 million in new funding.

The company hopes to use the money to build a lab in Essex by the end of 2023 that meets US Food and Drug Administration “good manufacturing practice” standards. The designation would allow the company to provide mRNA that its customers can use in clinical trials, said founder and CEO Christian Cobaugh. Currently, Vernal mRNA is mainly used for research.

“(The funding) is a relief. It kind of narrows our future,” Cobaugh said. “Capital is what allows any business to grow and develop. And we’re in a pretty competitive field now, and to stay competitive, we need to add capacity. »

Vernal produces high-purity mRNA to supply companies developing mRNA-based health treatments. The development of the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines was a stark example of such treatments. However, Cobaugh said, the “ship has sailed” for any new vaccine development, and he plans to keep Vernal’s focus on other uses for mRNA.

“Moderna and Pfizer really dominate the market,” Cobaugh said. “There’s not a ton of room for improvement. They do a terrific job. I like to say they’re sort of the proverbial tide that lifts ships that represent other opportunities and other use cases for mRNA.

These use cases include gene editing, cancer treatment, and clinical trials for cardiovascular disease and forms of dementia.

“It’s not really science fiction anymore,” Cobaugh said, referring to companies that use gene editing to target parts of the genome responsible for certain diseases.

Cobaugh also plans to use the funding to expand Vernal’s staff from about 18 employees today to more than 60, according to the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, a Burlington-based incubator that has advised Vernal since Cobaugh founded the company. company in April 2021.

The center also manages the Vermont Seed Capital Fund, one of the investors in Vernal’s expansion. Other backers include Ampersand Capital Partners, Dynamk Capital, Alloy Therapeutics, Charles River Laboratories Inc. and ATUM, according to a press release from Vernal.

Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies president David Bradbury said a combination of factors made Vernal stand out.

“This technology has been unlocked for rapid adoption and use in an attempt to address pressing health issues across the country and around the world,” Bradbury said. “We felt that due to Christian’s expertise, market timing and technology, this was a company we wanted to work with and see start and grow here in Vermont.”

Vernal frequently hires graduates from local colleges and universities, which Bradbury says is unique for the industry.

“Christian has a real commitment to working with colleges, bringing in people who want to work, live and create a place like this,” Bradbury said. “And the company culture is really fun, which I honestly didn’t expect in a biotech company.”

That trend likely won’t change, he said, though Cobaugh noted that some levels of expertise might not be as accessible in Vermont.

“We’re also going to need more specialized and experienced talent who, even if they’re in this area, may be a little too scarce,” Cobaugh said. “In these cases, we will seek to hire people from other places. Boston, of course, is in our sights.

Bradbury hopes this investment will bring companies like Vernal to other, non-traditional places.

“I hope Vernal’s growth and nationally known investors will focus attention on building and creating more life sciences companies and great jobs across the way,” Bradbury said. . “Not all biotechnology needs to be in San Diego or Cambridge. You can also do it from Vermont.

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