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Penn makes third big biotech bet, helping to raise $53M for Carisma

"We are thrilled about the composition of our funding"

Carisma Therapeutics

Carisma Therapeutics Inc., a cancer-fighting Philadelphia biotech company formerly known as Carma Therapeutics, said Wednesday that the University of Pennsylvania has joined a list of investors who together have committed $53 million to speed its cancer cell therapies to market.

Penn is joining previously announced private-sector Carisma investors led by Boston-based AbbVie Ventures. This makes Carisma the third small firm juiced by investments of up to $5 million each from the University of Pennsylvania's new $50 million biotech investment program. The university has also bought into Carl June's Tmunity and Steven Nichtberger's Tycho Therapeutics, and is seeking to back at least 10 firms total in a pilot investing program approved by board members in April.

Besides Penn and AbbVie, other Carisma investors include Dallas-based HealthCap; Germany-based Wellington Partners; smaller investors such as TPG Biotech, MRL Ventures Fund, and Agent Capital; and early-stage investors IP Group and Grazia Equity.

Penn's recent backing for Carisma and other for-profit start-ups headed by Penn researchers "is huge," and makes it easier for area biotech firms to attract out-of-town capital, said Martin Lehr, cofounder and CEO of Philadelphia cancer-treatment developer Context Therapeutics

"Penn's committment is pretty exciting for this region," said Roy Rosin, chief innovation officer at Penn Medicine, noting that a string of other biotech deals has lately "raised in the many millions."

He sees signs that other Philadelphia-based investors are raising new money for biotech, citing the example of 1315 Capital, which is raising $200 million for a fund that will focus partly on growing health-care-related firms.

Carisma said in a statement that the company is building a cancer-fighting platform it calls CAR-Macrophage, which it says is designed to use disease-fighting cells to target and kill cancer tumor cells, while also boosting the body's immune response.

Carisma was founded last summer by Saar Gill, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center, and Michael Klichinsky, a Ph.D. candidate at Penn, in partnership with Penn's UPstart Program.

The company is led by CEO Steven Kelly, Dora Mitchell (operations) and  Daniel Cushing (development). Its scientific advisory board includes Carl June (of Tmunity), and colleagues such as Lisa M. Coussens, Reinhard Andreesen, and S. Jane Flint.

The company will use the money to hire employees, including a chief science officer and a chief medical officer, and to prepare for clinical testing, which it expects to start next year.

In a statement, Kelly said advances in chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) cell manipulation technology has made it possible for Carisma to test immune cells called macrophages as a cancer treatment. "We are thrilled about the composition of our funding syndicate," which includes firms experienced in bringing cell and gene therapies toward clinical approval and sales, he added.

The Carisma board chairman is Bruce Peacock, a former executive of Cephalon, Centocor, and other area pharma companies. Other directors include Kelly and representatives of most of the firms that have invested in Carisma.

By working with "high-quality co-investors," Penn's biomedical investment program will help apply "fresh, tech-based tactics to longstanding challenges in medicine," said Kevin B. Mahoney, chief administrative officer for the University of Pennsylvania Health System and vice dean at Penn's Perelman Medical School, in a statement.

Capital investment will also "elevate the work of our internationally renowned faculty," and help in "diversifying Penn's research funding portfolio," Mahoney added. "We're especially excited" that the program will help persuade companies to stay in Philadelphia and boost the city "as a magnet for top talent in these emerging fields."

Besides investing directly in its doctors' for-profit projects, Mahoney and other top Penn officials want to see the school build cell-factory manufacturing infrastructure and support services that will make it faster and cheaper for new firms to ship and sell their new treatments, establishing Philadelphia as the factory hub of a new industry.