Univercells $19m Booster Shot to Help Disrupt Vaccine Industry

Traditional vaccine makers have limited incentive to invest in new technologies and processes says Univercells, which hopes to advance its own viral vaccines produced in micro-facilities.

Univercells has raised €16 million (US$18.7 million) of funding in a Series B financing round led by Global Health Investment Fund. Some of the capital will be used to increase the impact of its proprietary viral platform through the expansion of its portfolio.

“Following the platform proof of concept, with its sIPV development program coming to an end in December 2018, Univercells now focuses on expanding the application range to have a greater impact on global health,” José Castillo, CTO of Univercells, told BioProcess Insider.

“Proceeds of this capital increase will support the creation of a broad portfolio of viral vaccines, to be produced on Univercells’ micro-facility.”

Industry Disruption

Decades of little change in production techniques coupled with company consolidation have left the vaccine sector effectively as an oligopoly. In 2017, almost 90% of the vaccine revenue market was split between four companies: GSK, Merck & Co., Sanofi Pasteur and Pfizer, according to data from Statista.

Statistic: Top 10 pharmaceutical companies based on global vaccine revenue market share in 2017 and 2024 | Statista

Univercells is one of several firms looking to disrupt the vaccine industry through its process intensification tech.

“Traditional vaccine makers follow the conventional centralized manufacturing paradigm, where large scale facilities are used to distribute vaccines globally. Having established production capacities, these large players have limited incentives to find alternative processes and technologies,” Castillo said.

“The facilities based on traditional technologies – such as eggs, and roller bottles – are based on large-scale assets that are now fully amortized. Implementing innovative processes would require new investments, as well as regulatory updates for their commercialized products.

“Some new facilities are still designed based on traditional or conventional technologies, such as large-scale micro-carriers-based bioreactors, as they possess the sufficient investment capacity and benefit from economy of scale.”

$0.15 Vaccine

The Brussels, Belgium-headquartered tech company’s lead program is its Sabin inactivated polio vaccine (sIPV), funded in part through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The firm is close to achieving the program’s goal of producing the vaccine at $0.15 per dose.

According to Castillo, Univercells’ technology focuses on significantly reducing the infrastructure size required to produce sIPV and decreasing the investment needed. It also simplifies and automates operations, reducing manual operations and related risks.

“To design a smaller facility, Univercells focused on reducing the size of each unit step – cell culture, viral production, purification etc – using intensification technologies. By achieving high productivity with a miniaturized equipment, these process steps require a smaller footprint, reduced media, buffer, water and energy consumption, all acting to reduce production costs.”

Castillo said one of the main milestones in the sIPV program is to demonstrate a 40-fold increase compared to the benchmark current Cytodex-based bioreactor processes.

“Univercells achieved this by acting on the cell culture equipment (bioreactor) and on process optimization. Mainly, designing a compact fixed-bed bioreactor achieving high cell density was instrumental in reaching high final concentrations (200,000+ cells/cm²).”

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