A Baillie Gifford & Co. health care fund run by an all-female team has surged past peers to a 65% gain this year, largely thanks to a far-sighted bet on medical stock MRNA US Equity”/>Moderna Inc.
The fund’s standout performer by far is Moderna, up about 700% this year, propelled by the recent success of its coronavirus vaccine trials. Other top holdings of the $80 million Worldwide Health Innovation fund also saw triple-digit rises, making it the best performing among European health care peers, according to Morningstar Inc. data.
“The best way to think about Moderna is that they’re at the root of controlling biology — anything that can be coded, Moderna can replicate,” said the fund’s manager Julia Angeles, who first invested in the company when it listed in December 2018. “I believed they could be one of those really unique companies that bridges the gap between biotech and technology.”
The coronavirus sparked a rush by investors to bet on the winners in a race for a vaccine, with PFE US Equity”/>Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE soaring in the past month. Still, the nearest European peers to the Baillie Gifford fund trail it with gains of 13%-45% this year through November.
The pandemic has had a mixed impact on the health care industry overall. Many patients with other conditions have shunned emergency rooms and doctors’ offices for fear of contagion.
That’s benefitted the fund’s selection of businesses such as top holding M3 Inc., a Japanese firm that helps pharmaceutical companies, doctors and their patients access information online, something that has proved invaluable during the pandemic. Its shares nearly tripled through November. Others include video diagnosis firm Teladoc Health Inc.
“All online-driven companies that captured demand for physical meetings have just been exploding, and yet we think there’s more,” said Angeles. “All of this technology will help reinvent the health care system.”
Belarus-born Angeles runs the fund in Edinburgh alongside Marina Record, a Russian who has analyzed companies for the firm since 2008, and Vietnamese-born Rose Nguyen, whose parents are pharmacists and whose partner is a doctor. The team looks for undiscovered gems by going to health conferences, building relationships with scientists and talking to venture capitalists about trends.
Understanding a company’s management and strategy before investing is paramount for managers at 112-year-old Baillie Gifford. Angeles first met with Moderna Chief Executive Officer Stephane Bancel in 2017.
“We try to identify disruptive businesses as early as possible and how we can capture these signs that something is going to change,” said Angeles, who manages $65 billion overall. “We see the fund as raising a child in a way, and we’re helping it grow together.”
One company she sees as promising for future growth is Butterfly Network, a private firm that’s expected to go public next year, which manufactures ultrasound machines that can provide whole body imaging with a single hand-held probe. It will no doubt benefit from the pandemic, with lung ultrasounds to check Covid-19 symptoms, Angeles said.
The biotechnology industry’s responses to the virus are just the latest in an “endless line” of developments, which could pave the way for individualized medicines, said Richard Hunter, head of markets at Interactive Investors.
“There will be winners and losers but the outlook for the sector as a whole remains promising given the appetite and need to combat disease,” Hunter said.
Investors need to be careful if companies are too reliant on a Covid-19 vaccine, as a lot are being developed and that will push down prices, said Damien Conover, a director of equity research at Morningstar.
“Unless firms using new technology can employ that to make other medicines or vaccines, it’s difficult for us to see companies making a long path with sustainable cash flows with just a Covid vaccine,” he said.
Angeles sees Moderna rolling out a billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine next year, with the challenges being the supply chain for ingredients and avoiding staff burnout. Then will come the problem of what to use the cash for in a diverse pipeline of projects, with one potential future focus being on regenerating tissues to help heart conditions and diabetics.
“The nature of asymmetry is such that investment returns are driven by a few big winners,” said Angeles. “The main constraint to us appreciating that potential is our imagination.”
— With assistance by John Lauerman, and Zoe Schneeweiss
(Updates with Morningstar comments.)