Cellectis pulls off a $228M IPO to bankroll its CAR-T ambitions

Cellectis ($CLLS), a French company with a proprietary spin on one of biotech's hottest fields, made an up-sized debut on Wall Street, grossing more than $228 million.

The company, headquartered in Paris, priced 5.5 million American shares at $41.50 each, setting aside another 825,000 for its underwriters to set its maximum deal value above $260 million. Cellectis has been steadily raising its target since first revealing its IPO ambitions last month, and the biotech's Nasdaq debut brought in nearly double what it previously sought.

With the money, Cellectis will advance its pipeline of so-called CAR-T therapies, which work by souping up T cells to better detect malignancies, training the immune system to attack previously unseen cancers. Unlike industry leaders Novartis ($NVS), Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) and Kite Pharma ($KITE), Cellectis' approach to CAR-T uses off-the-shelf T cells harvested from third-party patients, a method the company believes will lead to best-in-class therapeutics. The majority of players in the field craft CAR-T therapies by taking a patient's own T cells, re-engineering them and re-infusing them.

Cellectis came onto the CAR-T scene last year when Pfizer ($PFE) inked an expansive collaboration deal with the biotech, paying $80 million up front and clearing the way for more than a dozen joint projects. Cellectis is due as much as $185 million in milestone payments for each successful CAR-T candidate, valuing the deal at as much as $2.8 billion.

With its IPO proceeds, Cellectis plans to get four preclinical CAR-T candidates through Phase I trials, earmarking $26 million for manufacturing and $26 million more for work outside of oncology. The company's lead candidate, a Servier-partnered treatment for leukemia, is slated for an IND filing this year.

Cellectis' IPO comes a few months after Juno raised $265 million in an IPO of its own, joining Bellicum Pharmaceuticals ($BLCM), which executed a $140 million debut, and Kite among publicly traded CAR-T companies.

The promise of immuno-oncology has been a key driver of the biotech sector's recent boom, as the potential of such therapies, while early in development, has some scientists convinced they've turned a corner in cancer treatment. At the same time, soaring valuations for companies at work on risky technology have spooked more than a few market watchers. A clinical failure in CAR-T, which is not at all unlikely, could destroy billions in value, market bears contend.

Meanwhile, 2014's bracing pace of biotech IPOs has largely continued into the new year, as a handful of Wall Street misfires haven't discouraged a steady stream of hopefuls. Over the last month, Blueprint Medicines, Aduro Biotech, Cidara Therapeutics and XBiotech have filed to raise more than $200 million combined in hopes the industry's IPO window remains open. Last year, nearly 90 life sciences companies went public, raising more than $6 billion.

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