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As coronavirus spreads, a biotech IPO squeaks through. Others may ‘wait and see’

Biotech companies seeking to go public in the U.S. face a stiff test during the surging outbreak of the new coronavirus, which is dragging down the stock market as the risks to the broader economy become real.

Initial public offerings by biotechs haven’t slowed quite yet. Imara, a sickle cell disease drug developer, became the ninth drugmaker to list shares in the U.S. this year, matching 2019’s pace through 10 weeks.

Nonetheless, analysts and some securities lawyers expect the market volatility to push companies to take a “temporary pause” to assess the damage being done to their business and fundraising prospects.

Entering 2020 there were no signs of a significant slowdown. Investment firm Jefferies reported in January that 51 biotechs raised $5.6 billion in 2019, a tick down from the 67 that generated $6.7 billion a year prior. Their shares gained an average of 49%.

Jefferies analysts said then they expected a “healthy IPO appetite for at least the first half of the year,” before the approach of the November election.

“This is a window where we expected a lot of deals,” adds Charlie Kim, who co-chairs the capital markets practice of the law firm Cooley and has worked on several biotech IPOs and follow-on offerings.

SARS-CoV-2, as the new coronavirus is known, poses a unique threat to those plans, however. The virus, confirmed to have infected 1,323 and killed 38 in the US, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University, has started to disrupt various aspects of the economy. The stock market has plummeted more than 20% since record highs in February, crossing Wednesday into “bear market” territory. Events and conferences are being canceled, as companies limit travel. Sporting events are being delayed or played in front of empty stadiums, while schools have begun to close in the U.S..

The biotech industry is starting to see the impact. Michael Bison, a partner at Goodwin Procter, says that his clients are trying to assess the potential damage. Will clinical trials be delayed? Drug manufacturing slowed? Will the capital markets close for biotechs?

Already, the stock downturn has eroded biotech valuations, along with many companies in other industries.

Among the biotech firms tracked by analyst firm Evercore ISI, small and mid-sized companies have lost an average of 24% this month. Financing may be a concern for the former group in particular, analyst Josh Schimmer warned. The Nasdaq Biotechnology Index is down more than 10% over the same span.

“We think the biotech market could remain tough and volatile (up and down) for at least another month,” Jefferies analysts added in a report Thursday.

That might mean that Imara, and those companies which went public before it this year, are raising cash just in time.

Before Wednesday, eight biotechs had IPO’d in the US, with five currently trading above their IPO price. All of them priced at or above their targets, led by cancer drugmaker Revolution Medicines and gene therapy developer Passage Bio.

Biotech public offerings in the U.S. this year, through March 12
Company IPO date Gross proceeds, millions IPO price Projected range
I-Mab Biopharma 1/16 $114 $14 $12-$15
Annovis Bio 1/28 $14 $6 $6-$8
Black Diamond Therapeutics 1/30 $231 $19 $16-$18
Arcutis Therapeutics 1/30 $183 $17 $15-$17
Anpac Bio-Medical Science 1/30 $16 $12 $12-$14
Beam Therapeutics 2/5 $207 $17 $15-$17
Revolution Medicines 2/12 $274 $17 $16-$17
Passage Bio 2/27 $216 $18 $16-$18
Imara 3/11 $75 $16 $16-$18

Together with Imara’s, the nine IPOs this year match the count of U.S. biotechs which had priced in an initial offering by this time last year.​

Imara is developing a drug for sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia, both rare blood diseases with limited treatment options. A Phase 2 study of Imara’s lead drug is already underway in sickle cell, with results expected later this year. A mid-stage beta-thalassemia trial could start within months. Imara declined to comment for this story, citing SEC quiet period rules.

Yet it’s unclear whether IPOs will continue apace as companies like Zentalis Pharmaceuticals, Lyra Therapeutics and Alaya Pharmaceuticals sit on deck in the IPO queue. Earlier this week, IPO research firm Renaissance Capital wrote that volatility from the outbreak “has now essentially shut down the spring IPO market.”

“It is nearly impossible to price IPOs when volatility is near record highs,” Renaissance wrote, adding that it expects a “narrower IPO window” in the summer and for more companies to eye IPOs the fall.

A few weeks ago, biotechs were mostly thinking about the election, says Cooley’s Kim. “Now the focus is absolutely on coronavirus,” he says.

That means there could be tough decisions ahead for those aiming to go public amid the outbreak. Biotechs early in the process, who have filed for IPOs privately under the JOBS Act, may hit a “temporary pause” before moving forward, Bison says. Those further along, publicly pitching their IPOs, may have to choose whether to cut a lower deal, or delay or pull their offerings altogether. They could also grapple with some issues unique to the coronavirus pandemic — among them, greatly reduced travel and face-to-face meetings with investors for road shows, as well as fewer opportunities for announcing data at medical conferences, many of which are canceling.

Both Bison and Kim say they aren’t seeing a slowdown just yet, and that there remains optimism that the cash will be there for IPO hopefuls. But those deals may take longer to materialize.

“People are waiting to see how things shake out in the days and weeks ahead,” Kim says.