See the 24-slide pitch deck a new biotech startup just used to raise $175 million to develop the next cancer breakthrough

A headshot of Jak Knowles, CEO and cofounder of Affini-T Therapeutics
  • Affini-T Therapeutics has raised $175 million to develop new cancer treatments.
  • The cell therapy startup is hoping to fight solid tumors with edited human immune cells.
  • Insider got the 24-page pitch deck the company used to raise money from investors like Leaps by Bayer.

A new cell therapy startup just raised a $175 million combination Series A and B round, fueling its effort to develop new treatments that could fight some of the toughest-to-treat types of cancer.

Affini-T Therapeutics wants to tackle hard-to-treat types of cancer by improving immunotherapy treatments, which engineer a patients’ own immune cells to better fight cancer cells. The first cell therapy programs, which are now approved treatments, have been transformative in treating certain types of blood cancers, but those benefits have yet to translate to other types of cancer. Affini-T is aiming to bring cell therapy’s benefits to solid tumors.

“The vast majority of tumors, and the vast majority of lost lives, is really due to solid tumors,” said Juergen Eckhardt, the head of Leaps by Bayer, which co-led Affini-T’s financing round alongside Vida Ventures.  “The big killers are colon cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer. For those, we don’t really have any good therapies available yet.”

The Seattle- and Boston-based startup is based on research by Juno Therapeutics cofounder and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center immunologist Phil Greenberg. Juno was a cell therapy pioneer that was bought by Celgene in 2018 for $9 billion.

Among a crowded and competitive space, Affini-T stands apart by what it’s targeting, said Jak Knowles, the CEO and cofounder of Affini-T. In particular, the company is focused on two genetic mutations that are common across many types of cancer, located on genes called KRAS and p53. 

“These are foundational to how the cancer is growing,” he said. “KRAS allows the cells to divide faster.”

Affini-T’s approach is to edit a type of immune cell called T-cells, that normally fight cancers and viruses, to better recognize these mutations. When these edited T-cells see these specific mutations, they then kill the cancerous cells.

Affini-T is still in the earliest stages of research, but hopes to have two treatments enter human testing next year. The plan is to run a study that recruits patients with a range of cancers, including pancreatic, lung, and colorectal, to see where the drug could be most effective.

In the meantime, an infusion of $175 million will provide enough cash runway for three years, and get Affini-T to the point of having clinical results, Knowles said. In the current biotech market, with biotech indices down more than 20% on the year, going public is not top of mind. 

“We’re very happy to be a private company in this environment, and that’s part of the reason why we wanted to raise a large sum of money,” Knowles said.

Here is the 24-slide presentation Affini-T used to raise $175 million from Leaps By Bayer, Vida Ventures, and other investors.

Affini-T Therapeutics was founded in 2020, based off of research from Fred Hutchinson’s Phil Greenberg.

The company made its first public presentation virtually in January 2022 at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference.

The startup is targeting cancer caused by some of the most common genetic mutations. These mutations helps cancer cells quickly multiply.

Specifically, Affini-T focuses on mutations on the KRAS gene and p53 gene.

Affini-T is aiming to design T-cells that will seek out and destroy cells with these cancer-driving gene mutations.

Cancer treatment is a massive, worldwide market. Pancreatic, colorectal, and lung cancer combined form a $20 billion-plus market.

Mutations on the KRAS gene are the top target for Affini-T. KRAS mutations are commonly found across several types of cancer, including pancreatic and colorectal cancer.

Affini-T currently has 56 employees, with plans to grow past 100 people in 2023, Knowles said.

Phil Greenberg is the key scientific cofounder. He previously cofounded cell therapy company Juno Therapeutics.

Affini-T’s scientific advisory board also includes Jim Allison, a cancer researcher who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Affini-T CEO Jak Knowles cofounded the company in 2020, when he worked at Leaps by Bayer. He left the gene-editing startup Metagenomi at the end of 2021 to lead Affini-T full time.

So far, cell therapy’s benefits have mostly been seen in treating blood cancers. Affini-T is trying to expand those benefits to solid tumors.

The startup’s work is focused on TCRs, or T-cell receptors. These are proteins on the surface of T-cells that help them recognize other cells and sniff out intruders.

Laboratory data shows that using T cells to target KRAS, the common cancer-driving mutation, leaves healthy cells alone.

Affini-T is focused on two types of T-cells: “killer” T cells that target cancer cells, and “helper” T cells that improve other parts of the immune system.

These helper T cells play a key role in boosting killer T cells, activating them to continue fighting cancerous cells.

Preclinical data from Affini-T suggests that making engineered changes to both types of T cells is better at fighting cancer tumors compared to only editing one type of T cell.

Affini-T is also incorporating some synthetic biology research from Greenberg’s lab to help T cells stay alive for longer periods of time.

Affini-T is currently working on experimental treatments for multiple types of cancer, all still in early stages.

Knowles said he hopes to have two KRAS-targeted programs start clinical testing in 2023.

Future programs could build in even more cutting-edge biotechnology ideas.

The bicoastal company has a 12,000-square-foot lab in Seattle and will be opening a new headquarters in Boston later this year.

Now with the Series A/B round completed, Knowles said he plans on raising a crossover round, which typically brings in more investors shortly before going public, in 2023.

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