- Early investment in biotechnology startups is on pace in 2023 to fall 40% compared to last year and by 55% versus two years ago, according to a report published Thursday by HSBC’s new innovation banking division.
- The report, a bi-annual temperature taker co-authored by former Silicon Valley Bank managing director Jon Norris, showed overall venture activity slowed as well. Companies with broad drugmaking “platforms” have been hit hard, with the total number of investments on pace to fall by more than half compared to the last three years.
- Blockbuster Series A rounds for just-launched companies — defined as those raising $150 million or more — are increasingly rare, said Norris, who joined HSBC as a managing director in April.
Investors are much more cautious about the biotechs they back than they were during the sector’s peak a few years ago.
Gone are the days when biotechs could easily raise cash and quickly pivot to public markets before starting a clinical trial. Venture firms are now more focused on helping their existing portfolio companies survive in the tough financing environment. When they do back new companies, they are looking for safer bets and experienced teams.
"A brand-new modality with commercialization risks is really difficult," Norris said in an interview. "If it's a known target that's super early-stage, that's OK. At least you don't have both parts of the equation being at risk."
HSBC’s data show that, in the first half of 2023, investors put $2 billion into 81 seed and Series A deals for biotech companies, pacing well below each of the last three years. Venture investment across the sector totaled $10.6 billion over 320 deals, numbers that are also lower than recent levels.
Arch Venture Partners was the most active venture firm in the first half of 2023, participating in seven deals, followed by RA Capital and Sofinnova Partners, according to the report.
The report is the first of its kind issued by HSBC Innovation Banking, the startup-focused department of the financial services giant, which absorbed the U.K. practice of Silicon Valley Bank following its collapse in March. (First Citizens Bank, which bought most of SVB’s assets, has since sued HSBC, claiming it poached more than 40 bankers.)
Among the report’s other findings: While the most money went to cancer biotechs and platform companies, the amounts for each category fell and startups were also more advanced. Most oncology deals were Series B rounds or later, and 12 of the 20 largest involved companies already in the clinic.
Notably, the three companies securing the largest rounds in the first half of 2023 — ElevateBio, ReNAgade Therapeutics and Metagenomi — are involved in cell and gene therapy, a field in which many publicly traded companies are struggling to survive.
“Crossover” rounds, or private financings that help lay the foundation for an IPO, have also shrunk in size and valuation from their highs in 2021. Those investors are now more focused on public companies, leaving venture firms to pick up the slack. According to the report, venture firms led nine of the 12 largest funding rounds between January and June, a job crossovers usually handled in previous years.
“Back in the blockbuster days, some of those companies were going public after [Series A rounds],” Norris said. “They were fully funded with the crossovers already in there.”
Norris expects IPO activity and M&A deals with large pharmaceutical firms to pick up in the second half of the year. But many startups looking for additional private funding will likely struggle, especially those without clinical data.
“For the majority of companies looking to finance, it's going to be a tough road,” Norris said.