AchilleS Vaccines has just been awarded €11mil in funding by the EU Malaria Fund (EUMF). This initial amount will grow to €46mil in the next five years if certain milestones are met.

The investment fosters the development, among others, of a novel malaria vaccine on a versatile technology platform that could transform the fight against some of the world’s most deadly diseases.

“Our objective is clear – to produce more affordable, safe and highly effective vaccines,” says Lorenzo Pellegrini Quarantotti, the company's co-founder.

The EUMF is a unique initiative in Europe and provides funding dedicated primarily to budding malaria-fighting companies. The funds are generated mostly by the public sector, governments, investors and donors, including the European Investment Bank and Fondazione Monte dei Paschi. The EUMF aims for non-dilutive investment into companies – unlike a venture capitalist who is allocated shares.

“The EUMF is embarking on a great challenge with a very innovative way of backing up highly promising companies and projects,” says Lorenzo Pellegrini Quarantotti. “This is a venture loan that has been created to support companies like AchilleS.”

Conquering the coronavirus

The Siena-based biotech company specializes in research on several illnesses, including malaria, antimicrobial resistance and more recently, COVID-19.

It is currently developing a monoclonal antibody – a man-made protein that acts like a human antibody in the immune system – against the virus responsible for COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2. This potential game-changer is part of the "MAbCo19 project" conducted in partnership with Toscana Life Sciences.

While malaria has been the company’s primary target, COVID-19 poses a challenge that has united the world in worry. As the pandemic widened its reach, the EUMF and its supporters decided to allocate more funding for COVID-19.

“AchilleS was able to receive this funding because we had a specific project involving malaria and antimicrobial resistance,” clarifies Pellegrini Quarantotti. “But the good news is that we were quickly able to pivot toward COVID-19 as well.”

The lifecycle of a vaccine

AchilleS begins its work at the applied research stage and follows through to the design and prototyping of a product. It remains active through phase two, before eventually handing it off for phase three onwards.

“Most of the big pharma players externalize several steps in a vaccine’s journey,” says Pellegrini Quarantotti, noting that the highest spending comes between phases two and three, which include regulatory approval and clinical trials. “Smaller and more agile organizations like AchilleS can do a better job here.”

Endorsed by leading global health organizations including WHO, GAVI and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, AchilleS boasts some of the world’s top vaccine scientists in its lab at the prestigious Toscana Life Sciences Incubator. It collaborates with the University of Cambridge and National Institute of Molecular Genetics in Milan, as well as several international companies that provide services for different areas of its development trajectory.

From distribution to development

Pellegrini spent decades on the sales, marketing, business development and distribution of the vaccine industry before trying his hand at vaccine development. He does not have a scientific background, yet what he lacks in the lab he more than makes up for in leadership.

Thanks to his contribution to the management team, AchilleS has quickly risen in the ranks of the vaccine sector. The company’s combination of strong technical expertise and international vision has allowed it to pursue high-tech development projects that it believes will save and improve lives worldwide.

Despite sharing a name with the Greek hero whose strong constitution but one extreme vulnerability proved deadly, AchilleS – and its co-founder – shows no sign of weakness.

“I’m not a scientist, so this is a dream come true,” says Pellegrini Quarantotti. “We have reached the peak – this level of financing is unheard of in Italy. Now we can attack COVID-19 head-on.”