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22 October 2014

Deal of the Year 2014: Juno Therapeutics

Immunotherapy firm Juno Therapeutics picks up Deal of the Year 2014 for its $176m series A.

Author: Gregg Bayes-Brown, editor

In a decision that will hardly come as a surprise to Global University Venturing (GUV) readers, this year’s Deal of the Year award goes to immunocology firm Juno Therapeutics.

The joint venture between Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, the Seattle Children's Research Institute and New York City-based Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre has actually raised two deals which could make it a contender for this year’s award. Within 10 months, Juno Therapeutics has raised $310m in external fundraising, its latest being a series B worth $134m.

However, it is the series A for which Juno picked up the award. In one of the biggest series A rounds in recent history, Juno raised a staggered $176m.

The ball began rolling in December at the time of its launch, when Juno received $120m through Arch Venture Partners, a venture firm spun out from the University of Chicago’s old technology transfer programme, and the Alaska Permanent Fund, an investment vehicle derived from oil profits created to build a large funding pot for the state once it runs out of fossil fuels. The company then went on to increase its backing to $145m when Bezos Expeditions, the personal investment unit of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and venture firm Venrock, established by the Rockefeller family, joined the round in January.

Already a gargantuan round, the series A was further topped off through expansions by the investors in April, bringing a close to the deal at $176m.

So what is Juno working on that’s worth putting $176m behind it within six months? In a word, immunotherapies. The oncology therapy is quickly building traction and, according to some observers, could be a market worth $35bn in the next ten years. It is also a space which is quickly becoming crowded with other well-financed contenders, such as Oxford University’s Adaptimmune, which received $104m in a series A in September for its immunotherapy treatments, and Kite Pharma, a University of California Los Angeles spin-out which won last year’s GUV Deal of the Year award for a $35m series A and recently raised $128m in an initial public offering.

In essence, immunotherapies will offer a new treatment for cancer which can be used once other conventional treatments have been exhausted or quite possibly as a replacement treatment for debilitating treatments such as chemotherapy.

It works by re-educating the body’s immune system to identify and target cancer. T-cells are extracted along with blood from a patient’s body where they are genetically programmed to recognise cancer from healthy tissue, and to attack it on sight. These T-cells are they infused back with the patient, and have demonstrated a robust capacity to eliminate tumours.

While it is too early to call immunotherapies a cure for cancer, the results do look promising. In Phase I/II trials conducted by Juno, 88% of patients saw a complete remission in their cancers while patients who underwent trials with similar technologies developed at the University of Pennsylvania are cancer-free four years later.

There are still issues with the technology – patients have died or nearly died due to T-cells getting out of control – and the promise, both financial and medical, has sparked a legal battle between Juno and Pennsylvania’s development partner Novartis. However, it is a truly exciting field, and one investors are taking seriously. So, although the size of the round itself is enough in itself to attract acclaim, it is not this reason alone that Juno wins the award. It also the weight behind Juno shows that the technology the deal supports may yet save millions of lives, and therefore Juno is awarded GUV’s Deal of the Year 2014 because it brings something else to the billions of people who have been affected by cancer: hope.

 

Other nominations: InsideSales.com (Stanford), Otonomy (Osage-backed), Adaptive Biotechnologies (Fred Hutchinson).

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