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Venture capital and the “double bottom line”: In conversation with former UK vaccine chief and health investor Kate Bingham

When venture capital investor Kate Bingham was appointed to lead the UK’s coronavirus vaccine procurement effort in May 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson tasked her with delivering “speed, not perfection”.

By December that year, the UK had approved its first Covid-19 vaccine, developed by Pfizer/BioNTech.

Since then, 80 per cent of the UK population over the age of 12 have received at least one vaccine, and the jabs are working “much better than anyone expected”.

“To get any vaccine from identification of pathogen through to a vaccine, the quickest historically has been five years, but that was 50 years ago,” says Bingham, managing partner of venture capital firm SV Health Investors, speaking around a virtual impact investing event, GSG Global Impact Summit in October.

Bingham has 30 years’ experience in the biotechnology sector, and her investments have helped launch new treatments for inflammatory and autoimmune disease and cancer.

As former Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, Bingham says she was “doing the same things” as she would in her venture capital funds: “It’s just that here we were given the chequebook that allowed us to do things in parallel, which you wouldn’t normally”.

Bingham reviewed almost 200 vaccine candidates, and whittled this down to a shortlist of 23, including those from Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech. 

“In May 2020 we were advised that the likelihood of vaccines working was estimated to be 15 per cent for those that had already entered the clinic, and less than 10 per cent for those that hadn’t,” says Bingham.

She applied the same approach to vaccine investing as she does in her venture capital funds, investing against milestones such as positive trial data.

Trial stages were run in parallel so as not to lose any time. By the time Oxford/Astrazeneca reported Phase II data demonstrating a good immune response in July 2020, they had already heavily recruited for their large-scale Phase III trial.

“Now that would never happen in the private sector,” says Bingham. “In the real world, you would do this gradually because nobody would be willing to put the money up until they’ve seen that actually that Phase II data was positive. But here we didn’t want to extend the time taken between trials, so we ran them in parallel.”

Bingham now believes that the lessons learned from marrying government funding with venture capital investment strategy are “completely relevant” to sectors outside of healthcare.

“I think you can apply it to climate, to tech, to all sorts of different aspects where what you’re looking for is technical and specialist capability – because that’s typically not what you get in government departments,” says Bingham.

“They’re very good at lots of things, but do they do they have current relationships with pharma companies or biotech companies? The answer is no, traditionally.”

The Dementia Discovery fund managed by SV Health Investors’ is another fund at the intersection between public and private finance.

The GBP250 million specialist venture capital fund invests in new treatments for dementias including Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“Dementias are not well managed. We have a few symptomatic treatments, but nothing that actually alters the course of the disease,” says Bingham.

The fund was government-triggered with investment from the Department of Health, as well as charities such as Alzheimer’s Research UK, and pharma companies including GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer.

“What happened is the government basically used its political convening power to pull together pharma companies, charities, and strategic investors and said, ‘Look, we need to do something together’. This is what we call a double bottom line fund.”

A ‘double bottom line’ fund seeks to make financial returns for investors, while also having a very clear social impact. Meanwhile, bringing in government funding helps to mitigate the risks for private investors.

The market for impact investments is heating up, growing by 42 per cent over the past year to be worth an estimated USD715 billion, according to the Global Impact Investing Network.

However, Bingham notes that the world still has work to do in improving access to Covid-19 vaccinations and ending the pandemic.

As Chair of the Vaccine Taskforce, Bingham says she was given three jobs: “The first was to secure vaccines for the UK, the second was to make sure vaccines were fairly and equitably distributed around the world to those who needed them, and third was to make sure that we were prepared for this next time.”

Ensuring a fair distribution of vaccines remains a “big problem”, according to Bingham. “I don’t think that the UK, but also globally, we have done a good job in distributing vaccines, which was job number two,” she says.

The uneven distribution of Covid-19 vaccines has been criticised, with wealthy countries being accused of stockpiling doses.

By September, only 3 per cent of people in low-income countries had been vaccinated with at least one dose, compared to over 60 per cent in high-income countries, according to the Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity.

The US has pledged to donate 1.1 billion doses to other countries, with the UK committing to supply 100 million surplus vaccine doses. 

“Although there have been pledges, there is little that’s actually been shipped – and the fact that you can put California and Africa on the same slide with more or less the same number of vaccines is not acceptable, in my view,” says Bingham.

Deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines have so far been far below these pledges, in part due to logistical challenges in supplying to low-income countries.

In addition to mRNA vaccines, finding alternative coronavirus treatments in the form of pills, patches, and sprays could be part of the solution in low-income countries, says Bingham.

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