DCVC leads $13 million seed funding for ShennonBio—revolutionizing immunotherapy through immune cell profiling at unprecedented accuracy, speed

By James Hardiman 03.13.23

San Francisco–based biotech startup ShennonBio brings radical progress to immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of the body’s immune system to fight cancer and autoimmune diseases. Over the past year and a half, the company has developed a proprietary platform able to isolate functionally activated rare T cells—at the level of a single cell—in a matter of hours. This stunning capacity has allowed ShennonBio to establish collaborations with a number of clinical centers to conduct studies on patient samples. The funding we announce today will go toward further strengthening the platform and building a pipeline of targets for solid tumors.

If we take a step back, immunotherapy has been around for hundreds of years. In the 1800s, two German doctors injected Streptococcus bacteria into patients’ tumors, in many cases leading to complete remission. In the early 20th century, in America’s first cancer hospital, William Coley—known now as the father of immunotherapy—spent 40 years injecting this same bacteria into patients suffering from inoperable bone and soft-tissue sarcoma.

The discovery in the 1960s of the functions of T cells and their role in conferring immunity drove further progress in the field. Today, immunotherapy identifies immune cells that can fight given diseases: such cells are removed from the body, altered to be more effective, grown in large batches, and put back into the body to fight the good fight.

But there’s a problem: it takes a great deal of time and effort to identify precisely which immune cells might work best against a specific disease. For instance, the isolation of exactly which kind of T or B cell is most likely to recognize the antigen of a given kind of cancer can amount to finding a needle in a haystack. The diversity of immune cells is enormous, and the best current technologies require weeks or months to home in on that ideal prospective target immune cell.

This needle-in-a-haystack challenge naturally leads to a bottleneck in the development of immunotherapies: a heartbreaking problem in a domain where the last thing a patient has is time. The world needs a better way to find the right immune cells, fast. This is why ShennonBio’s ability to isolate functionally activated rare T cells at the level of a single cell in mere hours is so transformative.

Though ShennonBio is beginning with cancer, it is poised to also address autoimmune diseases. Most basically, the company seeks to apply its approach to all diseases related to the immune system.

An experienced technologist, entrepreneur, and investor, ShennonBio founder and CEO Li Sun brings to her work the mindset of an impeccably educated engineer (she studied under Yet-Ming Chiang at MIT in materials science, then earned a PhD in Applied Physics from David Weitz’s lab at Harvard, focusing on single-cell analysis): as Li says it, she has been trained to always apply first principles to find the simplest, most direct solution to a problem. (Note that Li is hiring: we highly encourage your interest.)

This is what deep tech looks like: the development and application of emerging capabilities designed to solve problems that matter. As Li and her team proceed with their work, DCVC wishes them all success, to the eventual benefit of patients everywhere.

DCVC was joined in this round by Foundation Capital, AV8, and angel investors.

James Hardiman is a Partner at DCVC and a board member of ShennonBio.