A deal is a deal – and a good deal for Amsterdam’s Life Sciences & Health ecosystem

The Amsterdam region reaffirms its position as a blooming biotech powerhouse with two recent major takeovers. During a Life Sciences Café, two local startup Davids – Neogene Therapeutics and Frame Therapeutics – gave remarkably candid insights into being acquired by pharma Goliaths.

Amsterdam Economic Board and EY held an Amsterdam Life Sciences Café at Café Polder in Amsterdam Science Park on 9 November 2023. Under the title ‘Deal Stories/Update of the Dutch Life Sciences Deal Landscape’, the edition focused on two recent acquisitions of biotech companies based a stone’s throw from the event: Neogene Therapeutics by AstraZeneca, and Frame Therapeutics by CureVac.

A richer – and broader – local ecosystem

The event confronted questions such as: “What makes Dutch biotech startups particularly attractive for acquisitions?” “How do opportunities for acquisition deals arise, and how are they led to a successful outcome?” “How does David negotiate with Goliath? “And what are the consequences for people working at such companies?”

In essence, the answers reaffirmed the power of investing in infrastructure to help support the local Life Sciences & Health ecosystem. These two companies were able to exit their startup status while maintaining and valorising their distinct innovative drive – without losing employees, and not only being able to stay in the region, but also invigorating it.

However, that’s not to say there were no bumps along the road.

Aiming at solid tumours

It was a match made in cancer therapeutic heaven. The resource-heavy titan AstraZeneca has a long-term mission that’s about curing cancer and an ambition to become a leader in cell therapy. And Neogene Therapeutics has developed promising approaches in applying T-cell receptor biology and cell therapy manufacturing to target solid tumours – a holy grail within oncology. In the end, AstraZeneca will pay $320 million if all agreed milestones are reached.

“And reaching these goals is looking very promising,” says presenter Sanne Weijzen, responsible for Corporate Strategy and EU Operations at Neogene Therapeutics. Having also worked in a venture capital firm for the life sciences in the past, she is particularly well positioned to give a balanced view on the process.

The negotiations themselves proved a whirlwind: two-and-a-half months from start to finish. Yet Neogene was able to not only retain their full team, but also their own independence and governance for the first two years – and all with a guaranteed budget.

Sanne listed a number of factors for a successful transaction, including a clear deadline to close the deal, a small and cohesive negotiating team, great champions within both companies, aligned shareholders, and multiple back-up plans. As a result of previous partnering discussions, Neogene was especially well-prepared. “We already knew our must-haves and our nice-to-haves,” says Sanne. Of course, they also had something to sell: a world-class R&D team and a range of products in the pipeline that could provide ground-breaking therapies to patients with solid tumours.

Celebrating milestones – while sharing the love with Amsterdam

“Once the deal was done, it was essential to keep everyone calm during the transition and focused on achieving the milestones, while reassuring the team that there would be no layoffs. It was also important that management remained very accessible so they could answer any questions,” says Sanne.

In the end there were no regrets. “Perhaps from a relationship-building perspective or to save on sheer stress, we could have taken more time on the negotiations – but those deadlines were mostly self-imposed and also created a sense of urgency to close the deal.”

And now as the first anniversary of the acquisition is nearing, the real challenges around integration still need to begin. “Meanwhile, we’re still celebrating a lot of milestones and continuing to deliver what we promised – and with AstraZeneca supporting us.”

And the bond with Amsterdam is only growing stronger. With a new headquarters arising in the Amsterdam Medical Centrum Business Park, Neogene Therapeutics is only embedding itself deeper into the local ecosystem.

Personalised vaccines against cancer

Wigard Kloosterman, now Senior Director Cancer Antigen Discovery & Validation at CureVac Netherlands, opened his presentation by admitting he had only told this story before to close friends and associates – “and there was usually beer involved”. But as it turned out, even the censored non-beer version proved entertaining.

The story begins in end-2018 when his former PhD advisor, the well-known geneticist and former politician Ronald Plasterk, called to say he had big plans and wanted Wigard as the Chief Science Officer at Frame Therapeutics.

In fact, in the same month, Ronald had presented these plans at a previous edition of Life Sciences Café right after getting initial funding. Basically, the company was developing vaccines based on the DNA composition of both the cancer patients and their tumours, and in particular on frame peptides – and being able to do that fast enough within these patients’ limited timeline.

As with many startups, it was a shaky start. “We were taking the bus to visit rich people in the [famously wealthy] Gooi district and telling our story. And thanks to Ronald’s name and a strong plan, we were able to raise a few million in a month or two,” says Wigard. This enabled them to make some key hires, both locally and from abroad. “People like Amsterdam. If they get an electric bike, they love it.”

And thanks to their flexibility, they were able to start in a lab in Amsterdam Science Park the next day. “Even though Covid hit around then, we still managed to expand and seriously start.”

Cutting the deal

For the next financing round they brought in VC consultant veteran Rene Beukema as Chief Corporate Development Officer & General Counsel – a role similar to that which he played at Crucell (now Janssen Vaccines) – “a private equity and venture capital success story”.

“Rene knew the world and knew what price was reasonable,” says Wigard. Meanwhile, CureVac had seen a presentation and reached out by end of 2021. “They started with due diligence, by asking lots of scientific questions,” says Wigard. And CureVac was certainly a good fit as messenger RNA (mRNA) pioneers.

“At first, CureVac just wanted to license,” says Wigard. “But Rene convinced them they should just buy the full package and, in the end, they agreed.” The negotiations took a total of six months and the price was 32 million. “We didn’t really have any serious plan b’s, so we took the offer,” says Wigard.

Currently, the team is hard at work to prove the vaccine works. “Hearing Sanne’s story, I’m wondering if we had retained our independence for a year or two, we could have provided CureVac with even more value in that time,” says Wigard. “The integration was intense and difficult and kept myself and Ronald very busy, but at least the R&D team was largely left undisturbed to do their work.”

Now as CureVac Netherlands, the team is happily continuing with their planned innovations, while acting as key hub for CureVac, since its German headquarters is in a relatively small town (Tubingen) that lacks infrastructure and logistics.

“The fact that the whole science side of the team is still here as part of CureVac is always a good sign,” says Wigard. And certainly, we’re all committed to a future of growing the CureVac Hub in Amsterdam.”

So yes, again: no regrets. After all a deal is a deal.

Contribute to the next Life Sciences Café

Amsterdam Economic Board, together with EY, organizes Life Sciences cafés a few times a year.

The Café’s feature presentations and debates. A great opportunity to meet and mingle with colleagues from the life sciences sector and representatives from the broader business community in Amsterdam. If you have any feedback, ideas or extra information that may influence future editions of the Life Sciences Café, please contact Gerty Holla.

Read reports of previous editions of Life Sciences Café.

16 November 2023

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