How one of the UK’s brightest startups lost its rights to the Oxford vaccine

This meant the vaccine was partly owned by the university. However, Oxford also needed Vaccitech to agree to sign over its portion of the intellectual property. Without full control, agreeing a deal with a commercial partner would be tricky.

Fraught talks

The talks “were like any negotiations”, Sir John says. Some reports claim that tensions were high. The Wall Street Journal said that, in one phone call, Vaccitech boss Bill Enright’s job was under threat if the company refused. But, Sir John says, they were purely negotiations.

“We started in one place and they started in another,” he recalls.

Oxford Sciences Innovation made its own view clear, writing to Vaccitech to tell them that, although licensing intellectual property was a decision for the board, the company should do the deal with the university. Oxford insiders insist the aim wasn’t to “make money, but just to get the vaccine out the door”.

The identity of the commercial partner was a significant point of contention. Professor Gilbert and Professor Adrian Hill, Vaccitech’s two scientific founders, were unconvinced by initial plans to work with the US giant Merck. They held parallel meetings with AstraZeneca, ultimately resulting in a deal with the Anglo-Swedish company.

Vaccitech agreed that in exchange for a share of the AstraZeneca tie-up, it would also give the university its share of the intellectual property. Details of this deal were revealed in Vaccitech’s Wall Street float filings, in which it said it was handed a $2.5m one-off payment and would also receive a quarter of the royalties that Oxford would receive from sales, equal to around 1.4pc of net sales.

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