Tmunity Therapeutics, a four-year-old firm developing cancer treatments based on University of Pennsylvania T-cell immunotherapy, has raised $75 million more from investors led by Silicon Valley venture capital leader Andreessen Horowitz, which backed Facebook, Twitter, and Skype.
“We are bringing capital into Philadelphia” and “building up our manufacturing capabilities,” said Usman “Oz” Azam, Tmunity’s chief executive, in an interview.
The company employs 47 at its University City office and its new 47,000-square-foot cell factory and R&D center in East Norriton, Montgomery County, which Azam said he hopes to expand into a 200,000-square-foot factory, after shifting production from Penn’s Cancer Vaccines Production Facility. Tmunity hopes to add more than 20 professionals by 2021.
The factory site was occupied by Tengion Inc. before that regenerative medicine cell therapy company’s clinical trials failure and 2014 bankruptcy.
Why is Tmunity growing out in East Norriton, 45 minutes from Penn in midday traffic?
“We found a space that was the ideal space, that we could move into quickly and optimize, as opposed to build,” Azam said. “And the talent,” with the constellation of biotech business employers along the U.S. Route 202 corridor.
He said Tmunity could expand again in Philadelphia if current trends continue.
“The city is trying its best to become biotech friendly and make sure we can afford great talent,” competing with biotech rivals such as Boston, Azam added. “Although real estate prices are going up, you have the tax credits, the safe zones, the Schuylkill Yards initiative,” which could expand lab space around the Drexel campus and the Amtrak station at 30th Street.
“The city is waking up,” he concluded hopefully. “Spark Therapeutics,” which Roche Holdings plans to buy for more than $4 billion, “led the way. Hopefully, Tmunity and the second wave of companies are bringing capital and talent into the city, and we deliver for patients around the world.”
Tmunity will use the money for research, product, and manufacturing improvements, among other purposes, Azam said.
The investment marks a shift toward biotech by software-focused Andreessen Horowitz, also known as “a16z,” following a trail blazed by its older Silicon Valley neighbor Kleiner Perkins, which backed Tmunity’s previous $135 million capital raising early last year.
Another investor in that earlier round was California-based Westlake Village BioPartners, which was started by Andreessen Horowitz veterans to focus on biotech.
Azam said partners at Westlake and at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Penn introduced Tmunity to the Andreessen firm. “We wanted a great, visionary investor” with deep software experience, “which we believe is going to be very important in the future nexus of tech and biotech,” he added.
Tmunity is building “smarter weapons” against cancer, said Jorge Conde, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, who is joining the Tmunity board.
Conde noted that Tmunity uses the chimeric antigen receptor T-cells (CAR-T) cells developed by the company’s scientific cofounders, including Penn professors Carl June and Bruce Levine, to fight cancer tumors. Conde called CAR-T “one of the most profound breakthroughs against cancer in recent history.” Other Tmunity scientists include Yangbing Zhao, Jim Riley, and Anne Chew.
Joining Andreessen Horowitz as a first-time Tmunity investor is the American Cancer Society’s BrightEdge investment fund, along with new money from last year’s investors Westlake, Gilead Sciences, the University of Pennsylvania, and the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be The Match BioTherapies.
Investors last year not listed in the new investment are China-based PingAn Ventures, Eli Lilly & Co.'s Lilly Asia Ventures affiliate, and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.
Chinese investment in U.S. companies has become more difficult as the Trump administration and Congress have challenged Chinese actions. “The big change in the market for Chinese investors is the new scrutiny as part of the government initiatives at CFIUS,” the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, Azam said.
“CFIUS is looking very closely at overseas investment. It is now harder for Chinese entities based on mainland China to take a high shareholding [interest] in the U.S. across many businesses,” he added.