Oxford Tech VCT3 and other VCTs, and the Coronavirus Bandwagon

One of my shareholdings, Oxford Technology VCT3 (OTT), fell 44% this morning. Am I concerned? No because I have only ever held 10 shares in the company. I cannot even recall why I bought the shares back in 2014 but it was probably to keep an eye on their interest in unlisted Ixaris Group Holdings Ltd. That company was a major part of their portfolio and was still 65% of the net assets at the 29 February. It is also held by other VCTs. To quote from the ITT annual report, issued today, “For OT3 the initial Covid-19 pain has been most strongly felt by Ixaris, a travel payments company as a result of knock on impacts from Thomas Cook’s failure and a decline in Asian travel. Subsequent to our year end the downward pressure has increased on Ixaris with major airline disruption”. It also discloses that Ixaris received an offer during the financial year which would have meant a major exit at an uplifted price, but it collapsed at the last minute.

As a former director of Ixaris, and a very minor shareholder still, I was aware of this bad news. It looks like they are almost back at square one. That is the nature of early stage venture capital. Two steps forward and one step back, or vice versa in this case. I always took a sceptical view of the value put on Ixaris by OTT and other VCTs as I always considered it a highly risky investment.

OTT also wrote down Orthogem as it was sold for a nominal amount. This is what they said about that: “Although Orthogem had made significant technical progress with the launch of its putty product and appointment of international distributors, it was unable to raise sufficient funding to be able to continue to trade.  The OT VCTs were willing to continue supporting the company, especially given we believed the company was very close to commercial success, but the VCT rules governing the age of companies and the use to which any new funds can be applied prevented us from doing so”. VCT rules are now preventing some follow-on investments.

OTT also has a holding in listed Scancell (SCLP) which OTT says has had a moderate uplift after announcing the start of its research programme to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. They also say this: “Scancell is our third largest holding and had a disappointing year of regulatory and clinical delays in its flagship melanoma trial and its share price fell over the course of the year. Its planned Phase 2 combination trial with their initial product SCIB1 ran into difficulties with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) due to the delayed approval by the FDA of the upgraded delivery device from 3rd party Ichor. In the event, the trials started in the UK later than expected. Subsequently the required US approvals were received but a year has been lost and results will now be correspondingly delayed. Post period end the UK trial went on hold as a result of Covid-19 risks. Nevertheless good data from these trials could represent a significant value inflection point for Scancell and are eagerly awaited”.

There were big hopes for Scancell a few years ago but that has long since evaporated and revenue has remained at zero. It’s a typical story of early stage drug development companies which I avoid for that reason.

The Net Asset Value of OTT fell by 33% from the previous year-end, and hence the share price drop on what is a very illiquid share, like most VCTs. Normally VCTs are immune to general stock market fluctuations but not in the current recession. Some of my VCT holdings have fallen sharply no doubt because of downward valuations of some of their unlisted holdings but also because of sharp falls in many AIM shares which are a significant proportion of some VCT portfolios. This has also been compounded by the halt to share buy-backs in some VCTs – the result is just a few shareholders selling causing a sharp fall in their share prices.

Are their opportunities in VCT shares appearing, or should I be selling also? Perhaps is the answer, but VCT shares I consider to be very long-term holdings with a lot of the value coming from their tax-free dividends. I only tend to sell when I have lost confidence in the board or the investment manager.

As with the mention above of Scancell, almost all biotechnology companies are now trying to get into the coronavirus space by developing interests in vaccines, antibody tests and diagnostic products. Such an entry does wonders for the share prices. This ranges from the very largest companies such as Astrazeneca and Glaxosmithkline who are both gearing up for vaccine production to the smallest start-ups. One example announced today is that of Renalytix AI (RENX) who announced a joint venture with the Mount Sinai school of medicine to produce Covid-19 antibody test kits. RENX are focused on renal diseases which is why I picked up this news as I have an interest in this area but I do not hold the shares – historically no revenue to date. But RENX will only have a minority interest in the joint venture. I would not get too excited about this, particularly as it is possible that the epidemic will die out and there are lots of people producing test kits. But the company may be of interest otherwise as it does seem to be making some progress in renal diagnostics. There are 40-45,000 premature deaths in the UK every year due to kidney disease so you can see that it is comparable to the coronavirus epidemic and with still no effective treatments.

The coronavirus epidemic is clearly creating a bandwagon for companies to jump on. That can be a minefield for investors. Or to put it another way, an enormous amount of venture capital is being put into research of treatments and diagnostic production. It may produce results sooner or later, but a lot of the investment might produce nothing.

Lastly, it’s worth covering the dire economic gloom. Unemployment has reached record levels and Rolls-Royce (RR.) are making 9,000 employees redundant as new aero engine demand will clearly be non-existent for some time – maybe years.

To quote from the FT: “Rishi Sunak [Chancellor] has warned that the economy may not immediately bounce back from the corona-virus crisis and could suffer permanent scarring, as jobless claims soared at a record rate to more than 2 million. The chancellor struck a sombre note on a day that saw the biggest month-on-month increase in out of work benefits claims since records began in 1971. A further 10 million are now precariously relying on the state to pay their wages. He said ‘We are likely to face a severe recession, the likes of which we haven’t seen, and, of course, that will have an impact on employment’”.

Some of my readers may be facing redundancy or soon will be. Clearly we are living in exceptional times, but on a personal note it’s worth mentioning that I have been out of a job more than once in my past career. Recessions tend to only last a short time so the answer short-term is simply to take any job going. Longer term the answer is to ensure you can never be fired in future is to set up your own business. CEOs rarely fires themselves, and there is the possibility that a new business might make you rich. So that is what I did a few years later.

I don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs but from people who worked in big businesses. But it is easier than ever to start-up from scratch and redundancy pay can give you the initial capital required. Recessions don’t make it harder to start a new business but easier in some ways. As companies lay off full-time staff that gives opportunities for others, and any service or product that saves a company money can be immediately attractive. So redundancy just needs to be faced up to with some energy and initiative.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right in most browsers or by using the Contact page to send us a message requesting. You will then receive an email alerting you to new posts as they are added.

Renalytix AI Presentation

Yesterday I attended a presentation by Renalytix AI (RENX), a company which listed on AIM last November. They are focused on revolutionizing the diagnosis of kidney disease. This is an area I know something about having suffered from renal disease for at least 35 years, if not longer (a lot of renal disease goes unrecognised and undiagnosed for years).

The cost of renal disease is enormous and is estimated to be $90 billion per annum in the USA alone. The reason is because treatment options (dialysis or transplant) once End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) is reached are very expensive. A lot of renal disease, although there are several types, is caused by diabetes which we know is a rapidly escalating problem in the world. The company aims to develop better diagnosis so as to separate out those people who are likely to escalate into ESRD and who could be treated to prevent the need for dialysis or transplant and hence save most of the costs incurred by Medicare and others (the company is very focused on the US market).

When the company listed it was effectively a start-up but they did acquire some technology from EKF Diagnostics. Namely some tests for biomarkers in blood that are predictive to some degree. The company aims to combine this with other patient data to provide an accurate diagnostic. They have partnered with Mount Sinai, a very large US healthcare provider who have a large database of patient records and a biobank of blood samples. They also have other similar partners. They hope to sell the diagnostic test and analysis for less than $1000. Clearly the key is whether the test and analysis they are developing is validated by actual studies of predictability which they hope to have this year in the second quarter, and whether reimbursement for the cost is approved.

When asked how many diagnostic tests they might sell in future periods, the CEO said they were unable to forecast that at this time. It was also said they hope to breakeven by the end of the year, but clearly financial forecasts are somewhat uncertain.

They have also licensed some technology from Mount Sinai (FractalDX) for the monitoring of kidney transplants and medication thereof which is key to achieving low rejection and long-term survival rates. This provides a second product line. There is potential competition in that area but not apparently a strong one.

The company raised $27 million in the IPO and have spent $11 million on IP licenses plus $1.4 million on software/AI development and clinical assay development leaving them with $13.1 million in cash at the end of December. They don’t expect to run out of cash this year, but there is a clear risk that they will need more funding in due course. Current market cap is £76 million.

Why did they list on AIM rather than the USA? Not totally clear but probably because it is easier to raise capital for a new venture in a public listing on AIM than in US markets.

The company has an impressive board led by CEO James McCullough so one does not doubt that they have the required expertise and ability to achieve their ambition. But it’s still an unproven product in an unproven business model.

I questioned whether improved early-stage diagnosis would help when in the past treatments for kidney disease have been few. But this is apparently changing with products such as SGL2 inhibitors now available. It’s certainly an area where a lot of research to develop new drug treatments is taking place.

In conclusion, I was impressed by the management, although in such presentations by AIM companies you usually hear a persuasive “story”. But I was not totally convinced that they have a revolutionary product, at least one proven, or one that will justify the cost over other cheaper ways of picking up renal disease at an early stage and monitoring its progression. Simple checks such as for high blood pressure and blood in urine (which can be picked up by a dipstick) and blood tests for creatinine and other measures are readily available. They will need to prove that their biomarker tests and AI analysis of other patient parameters provide significant benefit. If they do the market potential is enormous. If not it might prove a disappointing investment.

A company to keep an eye on I suggest rather than plunge into at this stage unless you like high-risk propositions.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.