Pablo Cironi, Director of Life Sciences Investment Funds at Caixa Capital Risc

In November 2021, Swiss-based Vifor Pharma, a global pharmaceutical company specializing in iron deficiency, nephrology and cardio-renal therapies, entered into an agreement to acquire Spanish-based Sanifit Therapeutics, a stage-stage cardio-renal biopharmaceutical company. clinic focusing on treatments for progressive vascular calcification disorders. The transaction represented both the largest acquisition ever seen in the Spanish biotechnology sector and the largest operation to date for Caixa Capital Risc.

HMi sat down with Pablo Cironi, Director of Life Sciences Investment Funds at Caixa Capital Risc, to discuss the company’s role in the Sanifit deal, its investment approach under the “la Caixa” and its place in the European venture capital space.

Caixa Capital Risc, the venture capital (VC) arm of CriteraiCaixa, invests in innovative companies in the start-up and growth phase. In turn, CriteriaCaixa, Spain’s largest investment holding company, manages the assets of “la Caixa” Banking Foundation, a non-profit banking foundation. Every year, the ‘la Caixa’ Banking Foundation allocates more than 500 million euros to its social projects.

The company has three specialized teams in the fields of information technology, life sciences and industrial technologies and currently manages more than 200 million euros through nine specialized vehicles.

The Life Sciences team consists of six agents looking for opportunities, not only in Spain, but in the rest of Europe and North America. Its primary mission is to provide financial resources for opportunities that can create real impact on health and society while delivering a return on that investment.

“We’re not a typical VC,” Cironi said. “As a venture capital firm, we obviously care about getting a return on investment, but we don’t have to be overly aggressive in our goals.” We represent a relatively small part of the 23 billion euros under management at the Caixa Foundation, and the returns on our investments, although financially significant, are also measured in terms of the impact on society.

The life sciences sector in Spain is relatively new, but with an already established presence in the country, Caixa Capital Risc was one of the first VCs to take an interest in the industry.

“We were doing a lot of life science stuff,” Cironi said. “Not all of them worked well because the sector was not mature in terms of entrepreneurial know-how at the start – it lacked quality systems, the right level of senior management, etc. But Sanifit was an investment that worked .

Based in Palma, Sanifit is a spin-off from the University of the Balearic Islands. Caixa Capital Risc first invested in Sanifit in 2006.

“Our association with Sanifit was coincidental – in science sometimes things happen that way,” Cironi said. “But above all, the sector with examples like Sanifit represents a big step forward for the Spanish biopharmaceutical industry. This shows that the sector is maturing and puts Spain on the map as a potential market of interest for the mergers and acquisitions activities of large pharmaceutical companies.

Sanifit CEO and co-founder Joan Perello pioneered the development of the company’s lead candidate, SNF472, from academia to its clinical evaluation in dialysis patients with calciphylaxis and peripheral arterial disease.

“At first it was just an idea out of a lab,” Cironi said. “We thought it had the potential to treat multiple indications, multiple diseases.”

Caixa’s initial investment was a relatively modest few hundred thousand euros.

“We were convinced that we were supporting a good case, a good molecule, a good therapeutic, and we decided to continue investing,” Cironi said.

In the first round, Caixa was the only investor and remained the only investor in the second round. In the Series B funding exercise, it was joined by another small local VC and continued to invest in subsequent rounds until it accrued a commitment of €23m out of the total of 140 million euros that Sanifit raised before the announcement of the sale.

In 2015 and 2019, Sanifit announced the largest private biotech fundraising rounds in Spain with a variety of health-focused investors joining Caixa Capital Risc, including Ysios Capital, Lundbeckfonden Ventures, Forbion Capital Partners, Gilde Healthcare, Andera Partners , Columbus Venture Partners, Alta Life Sciences, Baxter Ventures, HealthEquity and INNVIERTE ECONOMÍA SOSTENIBLE, a venture capital fund managed by the Center for the Development of Industrial Technology of the Spanish government.

“That’s what differentiates us from other VCs because we don’t have to operate the same way in terms of limits on an investment and lifespan of an investment,” Cironi said. “We are a venture capital firm, so we can invest as much as we need or as much as we want, in order to provide enough funding for the company, subject to our comfort level as a shareholder. , of cours.”

Nonetheless, it was quite a significant exposure for an investor to build up in a company like Sanifit and in a sector that was still developing.

“It’s true that we took a big ticket in what was initially a Spanish start-up – double that of any other investor,” Cironi said.

Everything is relative though. In today’s market, there are examples of seed rounds of €50m or more and investors accepting tickets of €20m or €25m each. According to Ciron. “There is so much liquidity in the market that people actually need to run big tickets at such an early stage.

“Our exposure may seem crazy when you think about the maturity of the business, but it’s not like we decided to invest 23 million euros in the business 16 years ago. We have built this exhibition step by step. We deployed the money we thought was necessary to help the company succeed and the reason we did it is because we really believed in it.

And that belief translated into a healthy return on its investment, with Caixa Capital Risc receiving between 40 and 45 million euros from the sale.

“It’s always nice to have a successful story, but it’s not only important for us in terms of generating a good return, but also the impact it has on the health ecosystem in Spain,” Cironi said. “And that’s very relevant to the future transaction economy.”