Editas Medicine is pushing ahead with plans to go public. An IPO for the Cambridge, MA-based company would make it the first among the handful of biotechs that are betting on the groundbreaking CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system to develop human therapeutics.
In a regulatory filing posted today, Editas said it would aim to sell 5.9 million shares in the $16 to $18 range. The midpoint of that range would add up to a $100 million IPO and leave the company, for the moment, with a market value just north of $600 million. If all goes well, bankers could sell extra shares and bump the deal total to $122 million.
Though the blizzard that just buried the East Coast largely spared Editas’s home town, the company will have to navigate stormy markets to be the first big biotech issue of the year. It is also making its move as public ire has mounted against Eric Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, for what some call a revisionist history of CRISPR-Cas9. Under Lander, the Broad licensed Editas a key part of its underlying technology.
With biotech indices down 15 to 16 percent in 2016, and down 35 to 40 percent from their all-time high last summer, Editas’s IPO goals outlined today are no guarantee. Whether the company can go public, and under what terms, will be closely watched. Even in boom times, biotech firms without a drug in clinical trials rarely break through to the public markets. Editas CEO Katrine Bosley (pictured) said late last year that the firm hopes to have its first trial, for a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, up and running by 2017.
Unlike other emerging biotechs, however, Editas shouldn’t encounter too many prospective investors who are unfamiliar with the underlying technology.
In a few short years of use, CRISPR-Cas9 has swept through research labs around the world, making it easy for scientists to create genetically altered organisms. Whether scientists should be allowed to use CRISPR-Cas9 or other gene-editing systems to tinker with the human germline—eggs, sperm, and embryos—and potentially cure inherited diseases or create “designer babies,” is a major ethical issue. An international conference held in Washington, DC, in December, was devoted to the subject.
Who invented CRISPR-Cas9 is also a high profile debate. A struggle for the patent rights is moving through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the fight has spilled over into the court of public opinion, most recently with a paper titled “The Heroes of CRISPR” by the Broad’s Lander. Lander, whose institute is battling a group aligned with the University of California, Berkeley, has been pilloried for seemingly minimizing the role of Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna and others, while playing up the contributions of the Broad’s own scientists. (For a longer look at Lander’s background and reputation, see this article published today in STAT.)
Remarkably, Lander also failed to note his own conflict of interest. The Broad work is a key part of Editas’s intellectual property portfolio, and the institute could earn potentially tens of millions of dollars if Editas successfully commercializes medical products.
Meanwhile, Editas’s venture-backed rivals—Cambridge, MA-based Intellia Therapeutics and London-based CRISPR Therapeutics—have founded their businesses on IP from Doudna and from Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French scientist who collaborated with Doudna but had separate IP rights to assign because of the laws in Sweden, where she was working.
All three companies are working only on human medicines that alter somatic cells, where changes cannot be passed down to a patient’s offspring.
While Editas leads the small pack of CRISPR-Cas9 companies in the march toward the public markets, all of them have inked deals with development partners. Editas and Seattle’s Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO) joined forces last spring to improve Juno’s T cell therapies.
Intellia has a partnership with Novartis (NYSE: NVS), launched a year ago, also to help engineer T cells. (Novartis and Juno are rivals in a field called CAR-T therapy, which boosts the power of a patient’s own T cells to fight cancer.)
No date has been set for the Editas IPO.