Juno Therapeutics Adds Jeff Bezos, Venrock to $145M Venture Deal

1/13/14Follow @xconomy

[Correction: 5:45 pm PT 1/14/14] Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics is already one of the richest biotech startups in industry history, and today it got even richer.

The company said today it expanded its Series A venture financing to the jaw-dropping sum of $145 million. Bezos Expeditions, the investment vehicle for Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, joined the round, along with Venrock. The company was started last fall with $120 million from Arch Venture Partners and the Alaska Permanent Fund. Juno announced the expanded round at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, the industry’s biggest annual investment event.

All that money is now rallying around an increasingly deep team of biotech players. The startup’s board now includes Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the president of Rockefeller University and a highly regarded former executive at Genentech; Tony Evnin, an industry pioneer and longtime venture capitalist at Venrock, and Howard Pien, the former CEO of Medarex and Chiron. Jose Baselga, the physician-in-chief at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has agreed to chair Juno’s clinical advisory board.

The new investors aren’t complete strangers to the technology or the players at Juno. Bezos’s parents made a $10 million philanthropic pledge to the “Hutch” in November 2009 to advance its immunotherapy work, part of which is now moving ahead at the company. Venrock has co-invested alongside Arch Venture Partners numerous times. [Corrected: 5:45 pm PT 1/14/14 to note that Bezos's parents made the pledge to the Hutch, not Jeff Bezos himself.]

The big idea at Juno, which I described in the first in-depth story on the company, is to essentially re-engineer a patient’s own immune system T-cells to make them into aggressive cancer cell killers. The technology at the company comes from scientific founders at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

The method has shown some strikingly positive results in patients near death from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and has generated enthusiasm among scientists who believe the method could work for other tumor types. Juno certainly isn’t the only company betting big on this new “chimeric antigen receptor-modified T cell” (CAR-T) immunotherapy—it faces competition from Switzerland-based pharmaceutical giant Novartis and its collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania. There is an ongoing dispute about the intellectual property in this field, as Juno has joined St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital of Memphis in a legal battle against Penn.

Juno CEO Hans Bishop, the former chief operating officer at Dendreon, is scheduled to give the first public investor presentation on the company tomorrow at 9 am Pacific time at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. I’ll be there to listen in and report if there’s anything new to say.

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