Adaptimmune gathers $104M to fuel hot immuno-oncology tech race

Back at the beginning of June, Adaptimmune only had about a million pounds sterling in the bank. Then GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) completed a $350 million collaboration deal on its immuno-oncology tech and a lead therapy. And now a slate of top-tier biotech investors are anteing up a whopping $104 million Series A designed to take the Oxford-based company--named a Fierce 15 company earlier in the week--well down the clinical path.

Marquee VC player New Enterprise Associates stepped in to lead the round, with OrbiMed Advisors LLC, Wellington Management Company, Fidelity Biosciences, Foresite Capital Management, Ridgeback Capital Management, Novo A/S, QVT, Rock Springs Capital, venBio Select and Merlin Nexus adding their own investments. Existing investors participating included the University of Oxford and others. A couple of investors are keeping their involvement quiet for now.

Adaptimmune is specializing in T-cell receptor (TCR) technology, taking patients' T cells and reengineering them with a gene encoding a new receptor that can make them more efficient cancer cell killers. Closely related to CAR-T technology, advocates like Adaptimmune say that they should have more versatility with their technology by focusing on intracellular targets rather than surface targets. And by swarming the system with targeted T cell attackers, the idea is to develop a highly specialized killer that leaves healthy cells alone.

Adaptimmune CEO James Noble

"We are in a race against a lot of other people who are very well capitalized," says James Noble, the CEO of Adaptimmune. This big round gives the biotech a chance to double the staff--currently 52 people in the U.K. and Philadelphia--as they go into human studies with their own drug next year, GSK drives the lead further along toward a pivotal trial and more programs are lined up for the pipeline.

"We have a lot of targets," says Noble. "The cupboard has over 20 (programs), each of which has multicancer targets."

Unusually, the round puts three high-profile venture investors from the same firm on Adaptimmune's board: NEA's David Mott (MedImmune), Dr. Ali Behbahani and Elliott Sigal of Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) fame, who was asked to take the independent board seat.

GSK is co-developing Adaptimmune's lead program targeting the cancer testis antigen NY-ESO-1, with an option on the program that runs through clinical proof-of-concept, expected in about 18 months. And the pharma giant is covering the cost of the program.

There's no shortage of money flowing into the field. Juno in Seattle is working on CAR-T as well as TCRs with some $300 million in venture cash. Kite Pharmaceuticals ($KITE), another CAR-T/TCR player, took in $128 million from its IPO debut. And Novartis ($NVS) CEO Joe Jimenez has been funding a CAR-T program led by Penn's Carl June--who provided some of the original guidance at Adaptimmune--to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Looking past the broad opportunity in immuno-oncology that's been attracting hundreds of millions of dollars into the field, Mott tells FierceBiotech he saw a few things about Adaptimmune that warranted this kind of a major league investment.

Its engineered T-cell approach offers more novel targets than the CAR-T work that's been attracting so much attention recently, says Mott. The biotech's demonstrated the technology's potential for both hematologic cancers as well as solid tumors, which distinguishes it from the crowd. Its work has been built around a years-long in-house effort, without the licensing deals that have been struck among the rivals. And finally, they were completely won over by Noble's vision to build a significant biotech company.

"We think this has the potential to be a big business," says Mott. It may develop as a big public company or stay private for some years, with sufficient capital to drive a whole range of programs into the clinic.

Time will tell.

Special Report: Adaptimmune - 2014 Fierce 15