Josep Lluís Sanfeliu is a founding partner of Ysios Capital, a venture capital fund specializing in the biomedical sector. Their second investment vehicle in this sector hopes to reach €100 millions.
José Antonio Mesa is director of investment at Caixa Capital Risc, which invests in innovative sectors, including the life sciences. After the investment period finished on its first vehicle in the sector, Caixa Innvierte BioMed II aims to continue driving biotechnology companies in Spain.
Ysios Capital and Caixa Capital Risc are two of the 25 life sciences investment funds currently operating in the BioRegion of Catalonia. These two funds, Ysios Capital and Caixa Capital Risc, often join forces to grow projects with that promise to have a huge impact of society, through significant investments. Their latest joint operation –along with Johnson and Johnson Innovation– was with Aelix Therapeutics, investing a total of €11.5 millions. This was the first good news of the year for the health sector in Catalonia, but they say it won’t be the last.
Minoryx, Sanifit, Oryzon and now Aelix. Was 2015 a good year for investment?
Josep Lluís Sanfeliu: It was the best year for biotechnology in Catalonia. The three operations with Minoryx, Oryzon and Aelix Therapeutics in Barcelona alone surpass all private investment in biotechnology in 2014.
José A. Mesa: 2015 was an excellent year, the best by far. Other years may have had large operations, like when PharmaMar went public, but they were one-offs. In this case there were three operations over €10 millions. The volume committed is an important milestone for the sector.
Are these figures going to be the same or higher this year?
Josep Lluís Sanfeliu: If the company, the entrepreneur and the science are good and the medical need is great, yes. But there will also be other private investors with smaller amounts to put into other entrepreneurial initiatives. You have to remember that companies have to be started up and be able to fund their early stages and growth with smaller investments.
José A. Mesa: There are equivalent conversations and operations already underway. Things look really good for 2016. Plus, it’s not only the volume of investment but also acquisitions, large partnerships like that of Palobiofarma, etc. Success doesn’t lie only in a round of funding. Everything helps develop the sector.
The health and life sciences contradict Ascri's portrait of the general panorama of investment in 2015. Their yearly report shows that there were more investments (+9%) but smaller in size (-19.5%).
Josep Lluís Sanfeliu: In general there is a certain effervescence of technology start-ups and euphoria in creating apps or social media. Small companies that work in these areas can raise a million euros easily from investors like business angels. It’s easy for a lot of investments to go to this type of company, which don’t need as much money to test a product. However, in the life sciences there are fewer but larger investments.
José A. Mesa: In Catalonia, the rounds of investment are getting larger, on par with the rest of the world: you have to get the company to meet the goals expected from it, not to get lost along the way. We’re doing this better all the time, and cover more time and development of the company. And this means the rounds have to be bigger.
San Francisco recently hosted the JP Morgan 34th Annual Healthcare Conference, which you attended. What did you think of the event?
Josep Lluís Sanfeliu: It was quite possibly the most positive event, in terms of tone, in recent years. Because 2015 was one of the best years in terms of IPOs in the biotechnology and medical technology sector. Plus, there was a general euphoria regarding the industry and its perspectives.
José A. Mesa: Plus, many opportunities are created at the JP Morgan event, generating value merely by sharing time and space with small investors, large pharma corporations and investment banks.
There were an estimated 9,000 participants, from the ‘big ones’ to much smaller stakeholders in the sector. Do they have shared interests?
Josep Lluís Sanfeliu: One clear trend is the corporate venture, meaning greater investment from industry and large companies in start-ups. This co-existence is highly relevant and has been around for a while but is now picking up steam. You just have to look at our last two operations, Minoryx and Aelix, which were in collaboration with Roche and Johnson and Johnson, respectively. These have to establish the rules of the game in terms of transparence and managing any conflict of interest that may arise. But the relationship is very interesting because we have access to the industry’s know-how, the chance to work with a partner almost from the very beginning and which gives the company access to its scientific, technical and market resources.
José A. Mesa: Exactly, there’s been a lot of talk about pharma, which are entering earlier and looking to do deals to invest in small companies, but at a price to keep: they reserve the option to make sure the price of acquiring that innovation is sustainable. That’s why pharma companies propose deals to help fund start-ups alongside private investors, but setting a price that they will pay to acquire the company –if certain milestones are reached- and therefore investors get their return, the project continues in the hands of someone who can develop it and the pharma company ensure it gets a reasonable price.
In terms of themes, what investment trends do you see for 2016?
Josep Lluís Sanfeliu: We’ll see opportunities come out of hospital science and lots of activity in digital health, because it is a huge trend around the world and Barcelona, being the mobile capital and having good software companies and good science, may have something to say about it. And investment will continue in therapeutic areas like cancer and cardiovascular health, because the medial need is still there.
Jose A. Mesa: The critical mass of projects here is still small and if you focus on just one thing, you miss a lot of others. What we want is for those who excel to be able to show it. But it’s true that the global market has a greater appetite for investment in immuno-oncology, rare diseases and antibiotics.
Has the ecosystem matured?
Josep Lluís Sanfeliu: The ecosystem has been around for years, with its three pillars: academia, cutting-edge industry and clinical, medical and patient activity. Patients come to be treated in Barcelona and clinical trials are conducted here, where we also have benchmark scientists like José Baselga, Jordi Gatell and Josep Brugada. What has changed in recent years is that the three pillars have started talking to each other and capital has started to flow. So, the ecosystem, which has been around for some time but was possibly a bit more sterile, is now blooming. The first decade was trial and error, now it’s regeneration and consolidation.
José A. Mesa: It all comes from scientific excellence, but that’s nothing new in Catalonia. What is new is how the people who make up the ecosystem have changed through experience, training new generations of entrepreneurs and investors, and experiences abroad like Ysios has had. Now there are more mature companies to act as role models, new companies are set up with much greater knowledge of what they have to do, how they have to do it and investors are more confident.
And don’t we need to raise awareness to attract investors to the sector?
José A. Mesa: In the end, the large operations come from Ysios or Caixa Capital Risc or the two of us together. If there were more money in Catalonia for companies of this type, maybe the rounds would be the same but with national investors. Now we’re doing it with international funds.
Josep Lluís Sanfeliu: We need more people, more start-ups, more funds, more managers… Some people still don’t understand that biotechnology is a risky investment but, if you do it with a portfolio approach (investing in ten opportunities, not just one), with experts and in a structured manner, it can be a good opportunity. But of course, this is coming from an institution: us. It isn't good news that we’re the only fund in Spain. It would be great if there were more people explaining the same thing.