Laboratory worker

Burlington Tech Startup Raises Millions to Accelerate Manufacturing Growth

Source: Burlington Free Press

Vernal Biosciences, the Colchester-based manufacturer of mRNA used in vaccines and other drugs, has raised $21 million to build a manufacturing facility in Essex that will scale up the business from supporting research to being involved in clinical trials.

Christian Cobaugh, founder and CEO of Vernal, said Thursday the 23,000-square-foot building at 65 Red Pine Circle is currently a shell, but will be fitted up with everything needed to support clinical manufacturing, and will be “highly regulated” by the Food and Drug Administration. Cobaugh plans to be up and running in late 2023.

“The goal is for that facility to support clinical manufacturing, a very specialized level of manufacturing that has to take place in clean rooms,” Cobaugh said.

Cobaugh launched Vernal Biosciences in April 2021 to produce mRNA in high volumes at high purity levels and supply it to pharmaceutical companies and others who are developing new drugs and vaccines based on mRNA, like the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for COVID-19. It was mRNA, or messenger ribonucleic acid, which allowed these companies to develop vaccines in record-breaking time.

Using mRNA to manufacture vaccines is a rapid process, Cobaugh said, and shaves many months off the timeline. Traditional vaccines, such as the flu vaccine, are made by injecting chicken eggs with “seed stock” and then waiting for the eggs to produce enough material to be purified into vaccines. The process requires millions of eggs.

Once the manufacturing facility in Essex is up and running, Vernal Biosciences will serve as a contract manufacturer for its clients’ clinical trials, rather than only providing mRNA for research.

“You can imagine, whether it’s a small, medium or large company, they have these speculative projects going into clinical trials,” Cobaugh said. “It’s not clear to them yet whether they should be investing in all these capital expenses. They can outsource this (to us) on a transactional basis, without building what we’re building.”

It boils down to rent before you buy. And if Vernal does a “great job” during clinical trials, Cobaugh said, these companies will stay with the Essex facility after they get approval for commercial manufacturing, further growing the Vermont business.

“It’s a really big step for us, all rooted in our technology,” he said.

Vernal Biosciences is in a “massive hiring mode,” as a result of the investment, according to Cobaugh, and should have about 65 employees by the end of 2023. The company currently has 15 employees.

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