Third Rock bankrolls cancer immunotherapy upstart with $47M A round

Third Rock Ventures is committing $47 million to launch a biotech focused on cancer immunotherapeutics, one of the hottest fields in drug R&D today.

This is a classic startup from the crew that emerged from Millennium to launch their own venture group. The new company is named Jounce Therapeutics--adding another offbeat name to the Third Rock roster--and brings together some of the top scientists in the field and has been marinating under the guidance of a group of Third Rock partners. Cary Pfeffer is stepping up to take the helm on an interim basis, Robert Tepper is the interim CSO and Robert Kamen is interim chief technical officer. The whole team is just under 10 people right now, but is slated to grow to 15 to 25 by the end of the year, according to Pfeffer. And it has a big enough bankroll at the beginning to get a good distance down the runway.

Like other Third Rock startups, this one started with conversations among the experts, some seed funding about a year ago, in-licensing new technology and the adoption of a business plan to outline a path to the clinic.   

"The concept was to build a super company in immunotherapy that will have a significant impact on patients," says Pfeffer. Current cancer therapies often only offer slight gains for patients. But a sustained approach using the immune system has the potential to do much, much better.

There's nothing new about immunotherapy, of course. Dendreon ($DNDN) worked on Provenge for 20 years before it gained an approval. Ipilimumab, or Yervoy, was recently approved for melanoma and the Jounce crew is keeping a close eye on the anti-PD-1 drug from Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) which seized the spotlight at ASCO last summer. Jounce wants to be on the crest of the new wave of immunotherapies now in discovery.

It's early days for the company, of course, but Pfeffer says they will be relying on some fresh insights on the field, exploring antibody development and using real clinical samples from patients to better understand the tumor microenvironment while screening against different targets. Beyond that, Pfeffer is purposely vague about the timeline, though he expects that the interest already expressed by some big drug developers indicates a good shot at future partnering events.

One of the guiding scientific stars in this venture is Jim Allison from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Department of Immunology, whose research work helped lead to Yervoy. He's joined by Pam Sharma, an associate professor at MD Anderson Cancer Center; and Thomas F. Gajewski, a professor at the University of Chicago.

So what's behind the name? It refers to a formula in physics related to the rate of change, as well as the layman's word for jarring, sudden advances. If Pfeffer has his way, the company should get a reputation on both scores. 

- here's the press release