Alaska Now Has a $1 Billion Stake in This Biotech Startup

Pipette and microtubes
Photography by Wladimir Bulgar—Science Photo Library via Getty Images

An Alaskan state-run fund has been pumping massive amounts of cash into biotech startups and now holds an approximate $1 billion stake in cancer immunotherapy firm Juno Therapeutics (JUNO), Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

The Alaska Permanent Fund is a $50 billion entity fueled by the state’s legendary oil money reserves. The fund has been venturing into the biotech space over the past three years, including a 2013 investment of $129 million for a 25% stake in Juno. That company went on to have one of the biggest IPOs of 2014 and has a current market cap of about $4.1 billion.

All told, the Alaska Permanent Fund has funneled more than $280 million into three upstart biotechs. That includes the Juno investment; a $153 million investment in Alzheimer’s drug firm Denali Therapeutics; and an $80 million financing round last fall for another cancer immunotherapy biotech, Codiak BioSciences.

Bloomberg notes that it’s not exactly a coincidence that all three of those companies’ names reference signature Alaskan symbols such as the state’s capital city of Juneau, its tallest mountain, and the local Kodiak bear.

Juno is furthest along in its pipeline ambitions out of the three biotechs sponsored by the fund and has won other major deals, including a $1 billion arrangement with fellow biotech Celgene (CELG). On Monday, the company announced in its 10-K SEC filing that it’s aiming for an accelerated FDA approval of lead drug candidate JCAR015.

That drug hopeful is part of a hotly-watched new class of experimental therapies known as CAR-T which involve extracting patients’ T-cells, reengineering them to target cancerous cells, and then pumping them back into the patient. The technique has shown the most promise in blood cancers such as lymphoblastic leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Alaska’s stakes in these biotechs represents something of a gamble given the recent volatility in the biopharma market and the lengthy, often unpredictable process of bringing a biologic therapy from conception to market. But the sheer size of the fund also buys the state more time to wait for a return on its investments.

Stephen Moseley, who runs the fund, also made clear that this strategy amounts to a pure financial play rather than an attempt to birth a new biotech hub in the Lone Frontier state. “It’s not our job or expectation that we’ll create some Kendall Square in Juneau, Alaska,” he told Bloomberg in a reference to the massive life sciences center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Juno reported fourth-quarter 2015 earnings on Monday in which its quarterly loss narrowed thanks to lower technology acquisition expenses. The company’s stock is down about 4% on the day and about 9% year-to-date.




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