Atlas seedling banks $35M to feel out the future of immuno-oncology

Checkpoint inhibitors, designed to help the immune system better identify and attack cancer, have become the consensus next big things in oncology. But startup Surface Oncology is looking beyond their transformative promise with eyes on the next generation of immunotherapies, chasing some newly identified targets and raising $35 million to get rolling.

Surface CEO David Grayzel

Surface's preclinical programs expand on the potential blockbuster antibodies for PD-1 and PD-L1 that have grabbed headlines for Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and others, the company said. Building on the success of its predecessors, the biotech is at work on a broad, early-stage pipeline of treatments that promises to improve cancer cell detectability, block immune-suppressing agents around tumors and otherwise soup up the body's ability to battle malignancies, Surface said, projects that could work as monotherapies or in tandem with other medicines.

"By targeting novel areas of biology at the intersection of innate and adaptive immunity, we hope to expand the arsenal of immunotherapies, with the goal of treating a greater number of patients across a wider range of tumor types than are addressed by these agents today," Surface CEO David Grayzel said in a statement.

And Surface's potential helped the biotech attract some A-list backers. Atlas Venture, which seeded the company last year, led the $35 million round, joined by New Enterprise Associates, Fidelity Biosciences, Lilly ($LLY) Ventures, Amgen ($AMGN) Ventures, Novartis ($NVS) Institute for Biomedical Research and Elliott Sigal, the former R&D chief of Bristol-Myers who has since made the leap into VC.

The next step for Surface is to identify lead candidates and beat a path toward clinical development, something the biotech expects to complete this year. Grayzel, Surface chairman and Atlas partner, said Surface has a handful of people on staff and is steadily building its ranks, getting its labs up and running this month.

For Atlas, the closure of Surface's A round comes amid a long string of success for its early-stage portfolio, including gene editing biotech Intellia Therapeutics, the pain-focused Quartet Medicine and immunology startup Padlock Therapeutics, to name just three.

Grayzel is serving as acting CEO role as the company takes shape, joined by a scientific advisory board that includes Sigal and experts from Memorial Sloan Kettering, Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania. Also on the biotech's board are NEA's Robert Garland, Lilly Ventures' Armen Shanafelt and Fidelity's Robert Weisskoff.

- read the announcement