Virica Biotech’s viral vector-boosting technology gets $790K shot in the arm

Alexa Acal, a laboratory technologist at Virica Biotech, demonstrates some of the Ottawa firm's technology. Photo courtesy Virica Biotech

An Ottawa biotechnology startup is poised to help ramp up production of traditional viral vector-based vaccines after receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in new funding from the provincial government.

Virica Biotech said Friday it has landed a $790,000 grant from the Ontario Together Fund, which finances programs aimed at finding solutions to pandemic-related challenges. 

Founded in 2018, Virica makes specialized compounds that help boost production of viral vectors, which deliver new genes into infected cells designed to repair defective genes responsible for diseases such as cancer, muscular dystrophy and hereditary blindness.

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Viral vectors are also used in vaccines to deliver the genetic instructions that help the body’s immune system fight viruses such as COVID-19. 

While about three-quarters of Virica’s 50 customers are gene therapy producers, founder and CEO Jean-Simon Diallo says his firm’s technology also accelerates the production of vaccines, making it easier for Virica’s pharmaceutical partners to increase manufacturing yields and respond more quickly to virus outbreaks in the future.

“The vaccine application has always been there, and this (funding) allows us to focus a little bit more on that, even though it’s not currently our major market,” Diallo told Techopia on Friday. “This allows us to devote some resources to making sure that we have a solution ready the next time we need it.”

Friday’s announcement is the latest financial shot in the arm for Virica, which raised millions of dollars in venture capital in 2021 and last year received $400,000 from the federal government to help the National Research Council develop a gene therapy to treat a rare genetic disorder called lipoprotein lipase deficiency

The firm estimates that the global bioprocessing market, which includes viral medicines and vaccines, will exceed $17 billion by 2027 and is expected to grow at an annual rate of nearly 13 per cent in the years beyond.

As demand for viral vector-based vaccines and gene therapies grows, Virica’s star keeps rising. 

The firm’s headcount has grown from 16 to more than 35 in the past 18 months, while its revenues have increased at an average rate of 200 per cent annually since it was founded.

“It’s a fun ride,” Diallo said.

The company is currently in the midst of finalizing a series-B round and expects to bring in between US$10 million and $12 million, mostly from U.S. investors. Diallo said he’s hoping the round will close within the next three months, giving the firm enough runway to continue its groundbreaking R&D efforts well into the future.

“Despite a tough market, that’s advancing really well,” Diallo said of Virica’s funding push. “It’s very important to us to remain a Canadian company. We’re doing our best to do that. There’s not a lot of venture funds in Canada that will kind of fit our profile.”

Launched out of Bayview Yards, Virica has been based in a 3,000-square-foot laboratory at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute since the fall of 2021.

But Diallo says space at the heart institute is getting tight, and the firm plans to invest some of the latest cash in building more lab space, likely elsewhere in the city.

“Growing at the pace that we’re growing makes it a bit challenging to do that within the heart institute,” he said. “This will allow us to expand our facilities potentially outside the heart institute and keep growing in Ottawa.”

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