Prof Sarah Gilbert, the scientist who lead the team that created the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, is set for a payday of more than £20m as the biotech firm she co-founded prepares to float on the stock market in the US.
Gilbert, who became a household name as a result of her work creating Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine, owns 5.2% of Vaccitech, a Oxford University spin-out company that owns the biotechnology behind the AstraZeneca vaccine and others for Mers, hepatitis B, the virus that causes shingles, and a range of cancers.
The company, which Gilbert founded in 2016 with a fellow Oxford vaccine scientist Prof Adrian Hill, was reported on Wednesday to have filed regulatory papers before an initial public offering on the Nasdaq exchange. The report in the Financial Times did not suggest a guideline valuation for Vassitech, but it is likely that the company will seek a flotation price in excess of the £425m valuation it attracted in a fundraising drive earlier this month. Vaccitech declined to comment.
Hill also owns a 5.2% stake, according to filings at Companies House. If the company achieved a flotation value of £425m, Gilbert’s and his stakes would be worth £22m each. Oxford University could also collect a big windfall, as it holds a 5.4% stake directly. It also owns further stakes through the university’s spin-out holding company, Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI).
The backers of OSI include several Chinese firms, such as the investment arm of Huawei Technologies, the telecoms company accused of posing a national security risk to UK and US infrastructure.
A spokesperson for Oxford University declined to comment and Gilbert and Hill did not respond to requests for comment.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, owns 12% of Vaccitech through its venture capital fund GV. Sequoia Capital, a venture fund known for making millions from early funding of Apple, Google and YouTube, also owns 10%.
The UK government gave Vaccitech a grant of at least £155,000 to help fund the development of the coronavirus vaccine, which is based on a virus that causes common colds in chimpanzees. However, the Treasury is not listed on the firm’s shareholder register and it did not immediately response to requests for comment.
While Gilbert is set to make millions, it will only be a fraction of the billions scientists behind other coronavirus vaccines have made.
Uğur Şahin and his wife, Özlem Türecim, the co-founders and chief executive and chief medical officer of Pfizer’s vaccine partner BioNTech, have seen their net wealth soar to about $4bn (£2.9bn), according to Forbes magazine. BioNTech shares have risen by 200% since the beginning of the pandemic.
Stéphane Bancel, the chief executive of Moderna, has seen his fortune soar to an estimated $4.3bn as the US company’s share price has soared. Two scientists who helped develop the technology for Moderna’s mRNA vaccine have also become billionaires. Prof Timothy Springer of Harvard Medical School and Dr Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hold stakes worth $2.2bn and $2bn respectively.
AstraZeneca has signed a deal to distribute the Oxford vaccine on a not-for-profit basis during the pandemic. When the commercial deal ends, Oxford University will collect 6% of the revenue, and Vaccitech an undisclosed share.
From saxophone in the woods to lifesaving in a pandemic
In January 2020, Gilbert’s team at Oxford’s Jenner Institute was making an Ebola virus vaccine. But her mind – and those of most people in the vaccine community – was on the fast-spreading novel coronavirus emerging in China. The day after Chinese scientists released the genetic sequence of Covid19, she instructed her team to drop Ebola and get to work on a coronavirus vaccine.
Gilbert, who turns 59 this month, worked among the hardest of everyone. Her alarm would go off at 4am, and she would work late into the evening.
“It was hard work and it still is, but it’s hard work doing something that really matters,” she told the Observer. “We’ve got a huge number of people who have worked really, really hard on this for very many hours, day after day. It’s just relentless. But it helps that there are a lot of us doing it together.”
The hard work paid off. The vaccine worked, and Gilbert and the university teamed up with AstraZeneca to manufacture it on a vast scale, on the condition the vaccine would be sold on a not-for-profit basis.
She and Hill formed Vaccitech in 2016 as a way of allowing them and the university to profit from their discoveries.
Gilbert, who was born in Kettering, arrived at Oxford in 1994 to work with Hill on the malaria parasite, plasmodium. She soon fell into work on experimental vaccines, starting with one that roused white blood cells to fight malaria, followed by a “universal” flu vaccine.
As a student, Gilbert is said to have knitted cardigans with dogs on and played her saxophone in the woods to avoid disturbing her neighbours. As a researcher at Oxford, she gained a no-nonsense reputation, which some attribute in part to her raising triplets, though her husband gave up work to parent them.