WSJ News Exclusive | Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 Vaccine Startup in Conflict


A startup behind the Covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and

AstraZeneca


AZN 0.62%

PLC is planning an initial public offering that backers hope will be the biggest market debut of an Oxford spinoff in years.

One hurdle: the university itself.

Nine-hundred-year-old Oxford is wrestling with how to rewrite its rules for fostering companies created by its academics or born in its labs, while in a standoff with one that has been thrust into the spotlight by the pandemic. The startup, Vaccitech Ltd., has been pitching to potential investors and laying groundwork for a stock listing in New York as early as this year, according to people close to the plans and marketing documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Investors are aiming for an IPO valuation of around $700 million, with expectations that Vaccitech could be a $1 billion company by year-end. Big investors such as pharmaceutical giant

Gilead Sciences Inc.

and Lilly Asia Ventures, a venture-capital arm spun off from drugmaker Eli Lilly & Co., have expressed interest in investing, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by the Journal.

Vaccitech’s chief executive,

Bill Enright,

declined to comment, as did a Gilead spokesman. Lilly Asia Ventures didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Vaccitech is among a handful of once-obscure biotechs that have found their moment of opportunity in the pandemic. Vaccitech, though, hasn’t yet capitalized on its role. Some investors have been nervous about high-profile stumbles in the shot’s rollout and early negative perceptions about its effectiveness compared with other vaccines.

There is another hitch. Longstanding tensions between the startup and Oxford have raised novel hurdles in the complex fundraising process, according to people familiar with the matter. Plans for an IPO are still in flux, and may still fall apart, these people said.

As highly transmissible coronavirus variants sweep across the world, scientists are racing to understand why these new versions of the virus are spreading faster, and what this could mean for vaccine efforts. New research says the key may be the spike protein, which gives the coronavirus its unmistakable shape. Illustration: Nick Collingwood/WSJ

The university owns about 10% of the startup. Vaccitech, its bankers and lawyers have sought access, so far unsuccessfully, to Oxford’s exclusive Covid-19 vaccine contract with AstraZeneca, according to these people. The pact was struck last spring when the drugmaker agreed to make and distribute the Oxford vaccine. Vaccitech and its advisers have argued that the document spells out financial and legal obligations that are key to valuing the company fairly and for regulatory disclosures.

Oxford and Vaccitech are separately sparring over the narrative of the company’s role in the vaccine’s development, these people say. Vaccitech wants Oxford’s imprimatur to market its scientists’ early work alongside Oxford in inventing the vaccine and its assistance in speeding up manufacturing for early clinical trials and providing safety data for regulators, according to people familiar with the matter and related correspondence viewed by the Journal. The two sides also tussled briefly over where to list, with some Oxford-affiliated investors favoring London. Vaccitech executives have insisted on Nasdaq in New York.

Oxford didn’t reply to requests for comment. AstraZeneca declined to comment.

Before Covid-19, Vaccitech was a little-known biotech startup focused in part on…



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