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Success of Varda Space’s orbital pharmaceutical factory raises $90 million in new funding

Varda Aerospace Industries The company’s huge funding round comes just weeks after its first drug-making capsule returned from orbit.

Varda founder Delian Asparouhov told TechCrunch that the company’s $90 million Series B funding marks a turning point for the company, which is now preparing to expand from initial demonstration missions to regular missions carrying customer payloads.

El Segundo-based Varda was founded in 2021 by Asparouhov, who is also a partner at Founders Fund, and Will Bruey, a spacecraft engineer who cut his teeth at SpaceX. The two have an audacious goal of commercializing research into the effects of microgravity on drug crystals, which until recently was promising but ultimately small-scale.

In fact, Varda’s first mission, Return to Earth in February Ten months in orbit does not mark the first time a drug has crystallized in microgravity. Astronauts have been conducting protein crystallization experiments in space for decades aboard the International Space Station and previously the space shuttle.

But until now, the business case for expanding this research never materialized. Aspakhov explained that this is for a few different reasons: the types of solvents or other materials that can be brought to the ISS are very limited due to the crew; the work being done on the space station is tied to intellectual property Related limitations; Pharmaceutical laboratory equipment designed for use in space often lacks sophistication compared to terrestrial versions.

But things have changed a lot, especially in the aerospace industry. Varda is possible today in part because of SpaceX and Rocket Lab’s innovations in satellite bus manufacturing to provide regular, low-cost ride-sharing launches. Even outside of these external partnerships, the startup itself has made significant progress, as demonstrated by the success of its first mission: Their return capsule appeared to perform flawlessly, reformulating the antiviral drug ritonavir The experiment was also carried out successfully.

Varda has also begun publishing the results of its internal research and development efforts, including a scientific paper On its hypergravity (rather than microgravity) crystallization platform, the startup developed it as a screening method before sending drugs into space. This is a completely new area of ​​research that harnesses the power of truly unlocking gravity as a variable in scientific experiments.

Image Source: Varda Aerospace Industries (opens in new window)

“Over time we will be able to generate data sets between hypergravity and microgravity and start to show correlations,” he said. “As Varda flies more and more, we believe we will begin to be able to develop thought systems, and patterns for specific types of chemical systems will be used to determine eventual correlations between hypergravity, microgravity and drugs. performance.”

There is much work ahead. While engineers will study the first spacecraft, called Winnebago, to see how it wears out, the company as a whole will be more focused on cadence than reusability, he said.

“If you just amortize the total cost of running the business, we can make more money by initially increasing flight frequency before we really start achieving reusability. In some ways, we need to get to a monthly cadence, And then user reusability is really our biggest lever.”

Varda does aim to significantly reduce mission costs by refurbishing and reusing the Winnebago capsule, as SpaceX has done with its Dragon capsule, but Asparhouv said that won’t happen until later this decade, in 2027 It will come true if left or a recent podcast, he pointed out that the total cost of the initial mission is about $12 million, which will drop to $5-6 million at mission 4, and to $2.5 million or less at mission 10. ) Larger capsules are also in the long-term plans, although not until 2027 either.

Asparhouv also confirmed that pharmaceuticals will be Varda’s sole focus for the next 10-20 (or more) years, as the company firmly believes that pharmaceuticals will generate more economic value than other materials. This is largely due to the fact that there is an important group of drugs that only require “seeds” of materials that can only be made in microgravity, while the rest of the drug formula can be completed on Earth. This means that the product has high revenue but low quality.

The company is also working to increase the processing capabilities of its onboard pharmaceutical reactors. The first mission carried only one drug protein, but in the future the company hopes to process multiple drug products that can be run through different processing methods. In the future, other missions may carry larger reactors for drugs that really require more than just “seed” crystals, and those mission profiles will be closer to something like large-scale manufacturing.

Varda has signed a “minority” contract with a publicly traded biotech company, and the next three missions have been partnered with Rocket Lab, which provided the spacecraft bus for the first mission. The startup’s next manufacturing mission will launch later this year, with the team planning to land the spacecraft in Australia.

The new round of financing was led by Caffeied Capital, with participation from Lux Capital, General Catalyst, Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures. To date, Varda has raised $145 million.

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