Colchester-based biotech startup raises $21 million in funding for mRNA production

Green fabric with Vernal Biosciences logo
Colchester-based startup Vernal Biosciences is looking to expand. Courtesy Vernal Biosciences

Vernal Biosciences, a Colchester-based startup specializing in mRNA manufacturing, plans to expand its Vermont facilities and staff using $21 million in new funding. 

The company hopes to use that money to construct a laboratory in Essex by the end of 2023 that meets standards for “Good Manufacturing Practice” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That designation would allow the company to provide mRNA that their clients can use in clinical trials, founder and CEO Christian Cobaugh said. Currently, Vernal’s mRNA is primarily used for research. 

“(The funding) is a relief. It kind of de-risks our future,” Cobaugh said. “Capital is what allows any business to grow and to expand. And we are now in a pretty competitive field, and in order to stay competitive, we have to add capacity.”

Vernal produces high-purity mRNA to supply to companies that develop mRNA-based health treatments. The development of the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines was a prominent example of these treatments. However, Cobaugh said, the “ship has sailed” for any new vaccine developments, and he plans to keep Vernal’s focus on other uses of mRNA. 

“Moderna and Pfizer really dominate the market,” Cobaugh said. “There’s not a ton of room for improvement. They’re doing an awesome job. I like to say that they’re kind of the proverbial tide that’s lifting the ships that represent other opportunities and other use cases for mRNA.”

These use cases include gene editing, cancer treatment and clinical trials for cardiovascular disease and forms of dementia. 

“This is not really science fiction anymore,” Cobaugh said, referring to companies that use gene editing to target parts of the genome responsible for certain diseases. 

Cobaugh also plans to use the funding to expand Vernal’s staff from about 18 employees today to more than 60, according to the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, a Burlington-based incubator that has advised Vernal since Cobaugh founded the company in April 2021. 

The center also manages the Vermont Seed Capital Fund, one of the investors in Vernal’s expansion. Other funders include Ampersand Capital Partners, Dynamk Capital, Alloy Therapeutics, Charles River Laboratories Inc. and ATUM, according to a press release from Vernal.

Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies President David Bradbury said a combination of factors made Vernal stand out to him. 

“This technology was unlocked for rapid adoption and use to try to solve pressing health problems in the country and globe,” Bradbury said. “We felt that because of Christian’s expertise, and the market timing and the tech, this was a company we wanted to work with and see start and scale here in Vermont.”

Vernal frequently hires graduates from local colleges and universities, something that Bradbury said is unique for the industry.

“Christian has a real commitment to working with colleges, bringing in to state the people that want to work, live and create a place like this,” Bradbury said. “And the culture of the company is really fun, which I honestly didn’t expect in a biotech company.”

That trend is not likely to change, he said, although Cobaugh noted that certain levels of expertise may not be as accessible in Vermont. 

“We’re also going to be needing some more specialized, experienced talent that, while may be in this area, may be a little too scarce,” Cobaugh said. “In those cases, we’ll be looking to hire people from other locations. Boston, of course, is very much in our crosshairs.” 

Bradbury hopes the investment raises awareness of companies like Vernal in other non-traditional locations. 

“I hope Vernal’s growth and the investors who are nationally known call attention to setting up and creating more life sciences companies and great jobs across from it,” Bradbury said. “Not all biotech needs to be in San Diego or in Cambridge. You can do it from Vermont as well.”

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