science

A year that changed the world – and medical companies’ fortunes


The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on business, gutting high streets as familiar names fell into receivership. But for some less well-known firms, the past 18 months have been transformational. Those that have thrived did so by carving out a new niche – with products as varied as Covid sequencing technology kits and surgical masks with virus-killing coatings. We asked some of them about the year everything changed.

Oxford Nanopore

Oxford Nanopore, whose coronavirus sequencing technology has played a big role in tracking variants globally, last week confirmed plans to float in one of the year’s biggest London stock market debuts. The flotation is expected to make millionaires of two of its three founders, all scientists who met at Oxford.

Chief executive Gordon Sanghera will retain a golden share, giving him the power to block takeovers for three years. The aim is to transform Nanopore into a multibillion-pound group before it can be swallowed by a rival.

The company, spun out from Oxford University in 2005, hopes to exceed a £2.4bn valuation achieved at a fundraising round in May, and plans to tap into the growing genomic sequencing market, estimated to be worth $5.7bn. Nanopore also won contracts for Covid tests worth £144m from the Department of Health and Social Care last year. Its 2020 revenues more than doubled to £114m in what it called a “pivotal year”, from £52m in 2019. It is aiming to reduce its losses to break even within five years.

HeiQ

The London-listed, Swiss-based company has developed a surgical mask with an ultra-thin copper coating that destroys viruses and bacteria. Studies by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, showed that fabrics treated with the copper significantly deactivated coronavirus in as little as five minutes.

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HeiQ launched its “Viroblock” technology in March 2020, just as the pandemic hit, and today it is used by 150 major brands: Burberry puts it in a line of reusable masks. Revenues were up by 80% last year. By the end of 2020 the company had listed on the London stock exchange, raising £60m. Chief executive Carlo Centonze called the pandemic a “tipping point for antimicrobial textiles”.

Pack shots of the Viroblock mask
HeiQ’s Viroblock antiviral masks have an ultra-thin copper coating. Photograph: HeiQ Viroblock

Synairgen

Synairgen’s share price has soared by 342% since July 2020 when the University of Southampton spinout made a major breakthrough with a coronavirus treatment. The company has gone from fewer than 20 employees before Covid to about 100, including freelancers. Analysts at Numis are forecasting revenue of up to £582m from the Covid treatment next year.

The drug is based on a discovery made at the university’s medical school almost two decades ago by three professors – Stephen Holgate, Donna Davies and Ratko Djukanovic – who still act as consultants for the company. The trio found that people with asthma and chronic lung disease lacked a protein called interferon beta. They created Synairgen in 2004 to develop interferon beta treatments to boost patients’ defences against viral infection.

The company’s main drug, developed to treat lung disease COPD, is an inhaled interferon beta that patients self-administer through a hand-held, battery-operated nebuliser. In May, the shares rose again when the company said intermediate trials of the drug, which is delivered directly into patients’ lungs to prevent severe respiratory illness caused by Covid, had shown “potent antiviral activity” against two Covid variants. The tests also demonstrated “broad-spectrum antiviral activity” against other respiratory viruses such as RSV, adenovirus and influenza.

Chief executive Richard Marsden says that as the drug “switches on the immune system”, the team is confident it will work against any variant. Assuming clinical trials in 17 countries are successful, Synairgen hopes to file for regulatory approval globally early next year and is scaling up manufacturing.

Oxford Biomedica

Oxford Biomedica is one of the companies making the Covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca. It began manufacturing towards the end of 2020 after signing an 18-month supply agreement with the drugmaker last September, and has since doubled its production capacity at Oxbox in Oxford, in the city’s former Royal Mail sorting office.

The gene and cell therapy specialist was founded in 1995 as a spinout from Oxford University, floated the following year and moved into the FTSE 250 last year. Biomedica has made tens of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca jab and doubled its estimate for vaccine revenues to £100m in May. It expects “significant” growth in operating profits this year from last year’s £7.3m. Analysts at Jefferies say the supply agreement with AstraZeneca is likely to be extended beyond March 2022 but believe vaccine sales will drop, especially in the developed world.

Not everything is rosy. Biomedica is thought to be close to appointing a new chief executive to replace John Dawson after a controversial new pay policy. The company has awarded overseas executives much higher share bonuses and US-based non-executive directors an additional fee of up to £50,000 a year, which was criticised by governance experts ISS as creating a two-tier pay structure.

Croda International

Chief executive Steve Foots has described the east Yorkshire firm’s involvement in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as his “proudest moment in more than 30 years”. Last summer it acquired a business that makes lipid nanoparticles. These are tiny blobs of fat that encapsulate genetic material called mRNA and allow it to enter cells, churn out the coronavirus spike protein and prime the immune system to fight the disease.

Croda supplies the particles for the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, and is involved in more than 100 Covid-19 projects worldwide. This has sent its sales and profits soaring, and catapulted its share price to record levels.

The company is on track to make at least $200m from lipid systems this year, twice as much as originally thought, as Pfizer and BioNTech have ramped up vaccine production and aim to produce 3 billion jabs this year and 4 billion next. Annual profits, Croda said in late July, would be “significantly ahead” of forecasts, after a record first-half profit of £230m, up 50% on 2020 and 35% on 2019. As it expands its healthcare manufacturing sites, the 96-year-old company is turning itself into a life sciences and cosmetics business, moving away from industrial chemicals.

Test providers

The pandemic has spawned a new breed of Covid-19 test makers, such as Abingdon Health, Novacyt, Omega Diagnostics and Genedrive.

Novacyt, an Anglo-French firm listed in London, launched the first coronavirus test in Europe in January 2020 and clinched lucrative government contracts. Chief executive Graham Mullis hailed a “year of transformation” in 2020 in which the future of Novacyt had been secured and it had repaid all long-term debt. However, its relationship with the UK government soured over a £150m contract to supply PCR test machines and kits, when the firm complained in April that it had not been paid and the contract was not extended. Novacyt’s revenues in the six months to June rose 50% to £95m, with £41m from the government still in dispute.

Abingdon’s share price jumped in late August when it launched a £32.85 fingerprick test that tells people whether they are protected against coronavirus after vaccination or infection. The York-based company has high hopes for the new test, which comes after a rocky few months. It issued a profit warning in April amid a row with the UK government over unpaid bills for a different test, which was rejected by the UK health regulator for home use because of concerns over accuracy. Abingdon disputes that finding, referring to a study conducted by PHE and other scientists, and also notes that the new test is different.

Russ Mould of stockbroker AJ Bell says: “Should the virus refuse to go away, that could yet stir fresh enthusiasm for these firms and their prospects, and even if Covid is finally beaten off, many employers and individuals could yet stick with testing programmes by way of reassurance or even as a means of reopening for business.”



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