People in the Massachusetts biotechnology sector figured that the record-setting success of 2018 would be hard to match. So far, they're proving right.
After collectively raising $4.8 billion of venture capital last year, an all-time high, Bay State biotechs are on pace to raise less than $3 billion in 2019, according to a report published Tuesday by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a leading industry group.
Elizabeth Steele, MassBio's vice president of programs and global affairs, said the venture climate is merely "coming back to normal" after an "insane" 2018. A total of about $3 billion would be in line with the average from 2015 to 2017.
But Andrew Lo, a biotech investor who directs the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering, said he is "a bit more concerned."
"The telltale signs that we may be seeing a bit of a pullback in biotech are there and starting to show themselves," he said. "Especially in the current environment — where it looks like we may be heading toward a recession and the backdrop of a potential trade war with China and instability in our economic policy — I think that's all giving investors pause."
Venture capitalists are not throwing huge chunks of money at biotech startups as frequently as they did last year. Ten companies received investment rounds that exceeded $80 million in 2018; only one did so in the first half of this year.
The lone company, Cambridge-based Beam Therapeutics, raised $135 million. That's a large sum, by most standards, but three firms received investment rounds of $350 million or more last year, including Cambridge-based Moderna Therapeutics, which raised $500 million in one go.
Moderna went on to smash a biotech industry record by raising another $604 million in an initial public offering last December. Since then, however, Moderna's stock has been volatile, trading as high as $29.79 per share and as low as $11.54.
Biotech stocks, in general, have been prone to wild fluctuations this year, as politicians in both major parties propose to rein in high drug prices. Lower prices could erode companies' revenues.
"I don't think a lot of these proposals have real teeth, but investors still pay attention to them," said Alethia Young, head of health care research at investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald.
Despite investors' qualms and a partial government shutdown that delayed some IPOs early in the year, nine Massachusetts biotechs went public in the first six months of 2019. In theory, the state is on pace to equal last year's record total of 18 public offerings, but biotech investor Jorge Conde, a partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, previously told WBUR that IPOs in the first half of a year tend to outnumber those in the second half.
Young said the IPO market is "not as robust as 2018, but every year can't be a banner year. The market remains very healthy."
This segment aired on August 27, 2019.