If one thing could stay steady in this ever-fluctuating startup funding scene, you’d think it would be cancer investment.
Cancer still ranks as the second most common cause of death in America and a leading driver of mortality worldwide. And over past decades, we’ve seen startup innovation deliver lasting improvements to the arsenal of available medicines and diagnostic tools.
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But no, that’s not how it works. The sharp downturn in startup funding between 2021 and 2022 extends to venture-backed companies working on cancer therapies and diagnostics.
Globally, companies in the space pulled in $8 billion in seed through growth-stage funding in 2022, according to a Crunchbase analysis of funded startups developing cancer drugs and tests, and associated medical devices. With the year winding to a close, that’s looking like a sharp decline from 2021, when $13.7 billion went into cancer-focused companies.
For a sense of where things stand, we charted out funding to cancer-focused startups over the past five years:
The year-over-year decline in 2022 largely mimics what we see across startup sectors. Global venture funding has been falling every quarter this year, culminating in Q3 numbers that were down 53% from year-ago levels.
As with other areas, late stage has shown the sharpest declines for cancer funding. Early stage has held up better, both for deal counts and total investment.
“There is still quite a lot of interest, especially in Series A and Series B,” said Luba Greenwood, managing partner at Binney Street Capital, a venture fund affiliated with Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
What’s sputtered out is pre-IPO funding, as very few companies — in biotech or any other industry — are making it to public markets.
Where early stage is going
Data supports the notion that early stage is where it’s at. Half of the 10 largest cancer-focused funding rounds were Series A or B deals.
The biggest early-stage financing went to Treeline Biosciences, a developer of precision medicines that closed a $263 million Series A in October. Other big rounds include a $225 million Series B for Delfi Diagnostics, maker of tests for early cancer detection, and a $221 million Series B for ArsenalBio, a developer of advanced CAR T-cell therapies for solid tumors.
For a broader picture, we list the 10 largest 2022 rounds below:
Beyond moving earlier, Greenwood said investors are seeking out startups with novel approaches.
“We have spent so much money on the same me-too mechanisms. … Now, money is going to be concentrated in true innovation,” she said.
From Greenwood’s perspective, some of the most promising areas for novel innovation come from companies working on breakthroughs pertaining to cell state biology and the mechanism of differentiated cell death. She’s also optimistic about progress in the field of liquid biopsy, particularly for detecting cancer early and monitoring its progression.
To look at themes across our largest early-stage funding recipients, the term “precision” is the keyword of choice. Self-described immunotherapy startups also continue to draw significant funding, as they have for a number of years.
Still, funding is down some at seed and early stage this year, as the chart below illustrates:
Late stage and beyond
Funding declines at late stage are much more dramatic, as the chart below illustrates.
Beyond seed, early and late stage, we’re also seeing some contraction in investment at undisclosed-stage financings.
However, well-established startups that have been around awhile are getting some sizable financings. Freenome, a developer of blood tests for early cancer detection founded in 2014, landed $290 million from Roche early this year, bringing total investment to date to $1.1 billion.
What’s not happening are big rounds for companies on the cusp of a public offering. After dozens of cancer-focused companies took advantage of the wide-open IPO window in 2021, this year is a different story. Offerings have slowed to a crawl in recent months amid a broader downturn for biotech and health care stocks.
It doesn’t help that the Class of 2021 cancer-related IPOs haven’t been faring especially well. In a sample set of 20, the vast majority are currently trading well below early and peak share prices.
At the early stages, nonetheless, venture investors remain undeterred, per Greenwood, who observed: “Investors who invest in real science and real technologies that are curative for patients, we are not so invested in what’s going on in the public markets.”
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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