ET Bureau Last Updated: May 20, 2020, 08.24 PM IST
Wipro founder-chairman Azim Premji, among the world's most generous billionaires, is an investor in Moderna, the US-based biotech company, that has emerged a front-runner to make a vaccine to fight the novel coronavirus, according to sources familiar with the development.
The investment happened via PremjiInvest, his private investment arm which manages billions of dollars in assets and is among the biggest family offices in India.
The investment was in the range of $25-$30 million and was done a few years ago. While the fund sold some of its holding, it still has some left.
"Premji Invest has been consciously looking at firms that work in the area of low-cost immunity, care and delivery. It has invested in 5 such firms in the US. They have a full-fledged team looking at this area. The investment in Moderna was done by their Boston team, which has a lot of technical expertise in this area," a person familiar with the investment told ET now.
While PremjiInvest declined to comment, ET NOW is awaiting comments from Moderna.
Moderna has raised hopes globally after its experimental vaccine showed signs that it can create an immune system response to fight the coronavirus. Its vaccine works by using messenger RNA or mRNA. Unlike a normal vaccine, RNA vaccines work by introducing an mRNA molecule coded to produce disease-specific antigens.
An early human trial on 45 patients showed that eight people who were injected with the mRNA produced antibodies similar to those in recovered patients. Moderna said the mRNA-1273 was generally safe and well-tolerated.
At the same time, medical publication Stat News reported that vaccine experts were sceptical as the company is yet to release significant data to support its claim.
The company now plans to go ahead with phase 2 and a phase 3 stage. It also announced plans to raise $1.34 Billion through a public stock offering to make and distribute its mRNA-1273 vaccine. Sources said the fund has no plans for a follow on investment.
"More money won't go into Moderna. The fund is now evaluating opportunities in China and Israel. What attracted the team to Moderna was the work it did on Zika and Nipah, building out a vaccine platform. The fact that MIT's noted professor and inventor Robert Langer was an early investor was also a big factor," a source said.
Robert Langer is one of the most cited researchers in biotechnology and his lab at MIT is the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world. He's founded over 30 biotech companies and was one of the founding investors of Moderna in 2010, where he still holds over 3%.
While Azim Premji began the investment fund in 2006, to distinguish it from his philanthropy(Azim Premji Foundation) and core IT business Wipro, he merged his investment arm with the Foundation in 2018, in a move professor and inventor Robert Langer was an early investor was also a big factor," a source said.
It is a large investor in publicly traded companies such as Jubilant Foodworks, Marico and HDFC. According to Venture Intelligence, PremjiInvest itself has made 5 publicly disclosed investments (17% of its overall portfolio) in the Healthcare space: cancer care chain HCG; Koye Pharmaceuticals; publicly listed Zydus Wellness (along with PE firm TrueNorth) and US-based health services firms Iora Health and Devoted Health.