Kleiner Perkins is joining the syndicate backing Penn spinout Tmunity, adding $35 million for the cell therapy cause and bringing its launch round to a mammoth $135 million.
General Partner and longtime life sciences investor Beth Seidenberg is handling the investment for the high-profile venture group. And she’s not at all new to this.
Seidenberg also invested in Cell Design Labs, a company that was advancing a next-gen approach to CAR-T under UCSF scientist Wendell Lim, which Gilead snapped up a few months ago in a deal worth up to $567 million in the wake of its $12 billion Kite buyout.
Now she has a front row seat to another next-gen play; one of the most intriguing stories in early-stage cell therapy development. Tmunity is conducting a groundbreaking study using gene editing tech through its extensive involvement with investigators at Penn, led by cell therapy pioneer Carl June.
Tmunity is helmed by “Oz” Azam, who left Novartis as the pharma giant was ripping up the big cell and gene therapy unit he had created, absorbing it into the R&D operation ahead of its landmark approval for the world’s first approved CAR-T Kymriah.
Seidenberg tells me she sees the investment as a piece of unfinished business. Carl June had talked to her early on about investing in Tmunity, but there were elements about their involvement with Novartis that had to be cleaned up. After the board at Cell Design Labs finished the sale to Gilead, she says, June was back in touch. And the timing was perfect.
“The investigation with the Penn investigators is just a wonderful opportunity to continue to feed into the company,” she tells me. And she has full confidence in Azam’s abilities to lead the company in a field he has devoted his career to for years now.
Big mega-rounds like this are becoming more and more common, triggering an ongoing debate over the amount of money being pumped into early-stage biotechs. A big question now is whether too much money is being invested too quickly, perhaps loosening the reins and encouraging an undisciplined approach to spending.
Seidenberg says it’s unusual for her to jump into something this big. She prefers the smaller rounds and more traditional approach to starting a biotech. But that strategy won’t work here.
“I’ll make an exception for the right company and the right set of entrepreneurs,” she says.
Tmunity in particular has set its sights on developing the kind of built-from-scratch manufacturing operation it needs in light of the contract manufacturing industry’s inability to provide the service under contract. That was the right thing for Kite, and she believes it’s the right thing for Tmunity.
It also won’t come cheap.
Seidenberg is joining a syndicate she’s quite comfortable with. Sean Parker’s eponymous institute is on board, along with Ping An Ventures, Gilead Sciences, Be The Match BioTherapies, University of Pennsylvania and Lilly Asia Ventures.
Image: Beth Seidenberg.
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