Novartis provides $170M to kick off Surface Oncology partnership

Fledgling Cambridge, MA-based startup Surface Oncology has pulled off its first Big Pharma deal, grabbing $170 million in near-term milestones, an upfront and research support from Novartis ($NVS) as it pursues next-gen cancer immuno-therapies.

In exchange, Novartis is buying a ringside seat to Surface Oncology's pipeline activities, taking worldwide rights to the lead program and dibs on three more cancer programs. Surface, though, isn't just signing away rights. It's keeping U.S. commercialization rights on at least half of the programs. And there's more cash available in unspecified milestones in the deal.

Surface CEO Detlev Biniszkiewicz

"The total deal potential is consistent with other major IO deals in the space such as the recent Symphogen deal, among others," says CEO Detlev Biniszkiewicz in an email response to FierceBiotech. "We will receive major clinical and commercial milestones for all four programs as well as double digit royalties. The total deal potential reflects the value of Surface's novel portfolio of projects that target regulatory T cell and macrophage populations, inhibitory cytokines, and immunosuppressive metabolites."

Novartis was wooed in by Surface Oncology's decision to look past checkpoint inhibitors and go on to the next challenges that face the field. The biotech is working on improving antigen uptake and presentation, blocking suppressor cells that populate the tumor microenvironment and heading off cytokines and metabolites that can blunt an immune system attack.

Surface, a 2015 Fierce 15 company, has attracted attention to the company through a world-class group of scientific advisers that includes Sasha Rudensky at Memorial Sloan Kettering and Arlene Sharpe at Dana-Farber. The group was launched by Atlas Venture, NEA and others. And the scientific advisory group also includes former Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) R&D chief Elliott Sigal, an NEA partner and individual investor in the company.

"As we discussed last year, it is critical in the immune-oncology field to 'skate to where the puck will be', that is, to address the question of what is beyond PD-1 and other T-cell, checkpoint inhibitors," Sigal noted to me in an email earlier on Sunday. "After a very competitive process, Surface Oncology has chosen Novartis, an excellent, like-minded partner in this quest. Teams from both companies will bring complementary skills and resources to advance Surface Oncology's fast-moving pipeline of targeted antibodies. This pipeline represents a variety of novel approaches to modulate the tumor micro-environment in order to strengthen or elicit an immune reaction to tumor cells. I believe the deal will yield to both partners significant value and hopefully provide patients additional alternatives to recruit their immune system in their fight against cancer."

Special Report: FierceBiotech's 2015 Fierce 15 - Surface Oncology