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Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw co-founded biotech startup raises Series A funding
Photo Credit: 123RF.com

Immuneel Therapeutics Pvt Ltd, co-founded by Biocon founder Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, has raised around $15 million (Rs 116 crore) in a Series A funding round co-led by Eight Roads Ventures, True North and F-Prime Capital along with participation from existing investors.

Established in 2019, Immuneel has raised around $28 million till date from venture capital firms as well as individuals, Shaw told VCCircle in an interaction, a relatively significant sum for a biotech startup from which venture capital firms have traditionally and largely stayed away in India because of its capital-intensive business and lack of exit visibility.

Immuneel is focused on creating access to Chimeric Antigen Receptor T cell therapy (CAR-T) and other cellular immunotherapies for the management and treatment of cancer. The startup has also announced India's first Phase II patient trial for CAR-T cancer therapies. These therapies are available internationally at an exorbitant over $350,000 per dose, making Immuneel's IMAGINE trial the first step towards bringing affordable treatments with global quality and clinical data to patients in India.

"The CAR-T space and cell and gene therapy are very attractive areas of investment across the world and when we say that we want to put India on the map for CAR-T, it appeals to a lot of investors who look to invest in India's biotech space," Shaw noted.

Besides, apart from Shaw as the co-founder of Immuneel, her co-founders - US oncologist and Pulitzer winner, Siddhartha Mukherjee and venture capitalist, Kush Parwar - come with their share of credibility.

"They (the investors) knew what we were doing and we have the global network to do the right thing. Having said that, what we have raised isn't a very huge amount of capital," she pointed.

However, the next round of funding, which it wants to raise within a year, is expected to be larger and at a higher valuation, she added without disclosing further details.

Arun Anand, director and chief operating officer, Immuneel, said that the fresh capital will be used to further its clinical trials and to scale up manufacturing.

Part of the funds will also be used to invest in digital technology.

The investment in digital technology helps in getting smarter about how cell therapies can be made as well as track and trace its autologous therapies that allows it to have a high degree of control, explained Anand, who was previously with Indian drug major Dr Reddy's.

Autologous therapy is a novel therapeutic intervention that uses an individual's cells or tissues, processed outside the body and re-introduced into the donor. The digital framework also helps bring all of the elements of clinical manufacturing data together into an analytical platform, "which is an important facet of our work," he added.

Elaborating on the Clinical II trials, Anand said that the startup hopes to be able to enroll patients rapidly and there is a waitlist of patients who want to get on the trial at the hospital chain Narayana Health. This is a very niche area and traditionally there hasn't been the need for a large clinical trial and it is closely engaging with the regulators to understand how soon it can run with it post the trial. It is also looking at ways to see if it needs another small clinical trial to get regulatory approval.

Shaw explained that the idea of Immuneel was conceived when her co-founders discussed how India is nowhere on the map of CAR-T and yet China is surging ahead. She also pointed out that while Biocon's group company Syngene was already tinkering with CAR-T but setting up a new company was a better idea. Shortly later, Anand was onboarded with the idea. She also said that the idea was to start the company within a hospital and thereby selected Narayana Health, as Mazumdar Shaw Center for Translational Research, which was aimed at developing scientific breakthroughs, is also located in the hospital.

The startup also formed a scientific board comprising of names such as Carl June, who is credited with the development of T-cell therapy for CAR-T, Bruce Levine, who is known to have conducted first in-human adoptive immunotherapy trials using CAR-T cells; and Noopur Raje, a translational researcher, and Director, Center for Multiple Myeloma, among others. 

Shaw also said that she started Immuneel with a consortium of philanthropic capital and hence got capital from hospital groups such as Manipal, Apollo, Narayana Health as well as Pankaj Patel of drug firm Zydus. "We also realized that we need VC capital to give legs to the next round of funding and got Eight Roads and F-Prime, who work very closely with us," she said. It also got investments from Khosla Ventures. 

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