Banking on Shanghai's biotech boom, this Eli Lilly-backed player grabs $100M to push next-gen I/O therapies
Every six months for the past two years or so, five renowned scientists and biotech vets — David Shen of NGM Bio, Arlene Sharpe and Vijay Kuchroo of Harvard, Juno co-founder Phil Greenberg and University of Chicago’s Tom Gajewski — would meet. There (most recently at Napa Valley over wine), as a scientific advisory board, they would offer advice to a biotech startup based an ocean away in Shanghai, on their quest to uncover new targets and new antibody therapeutics for immuno-oncology.
That company, Elpiscience, is now taking the wraps off a $100 million Series B to usher two of its 12 compounds through clinical trials, bring a couple into the clinic, and in-license more from global partners.
Meanwhile, thanks to a RMB$150 million ($21.4 million) collaboration with Bank of China and Agricultural Bank of China, they will also be building their own manufacturing facilities — big enough to eventually transfer all production back from contract manufacturers.
Elpiscience found itself in the right place at the right time, CEO Darren Ji told Endpoints News, as Shanghai establishes itself as a biotech hub on par with both the Cambridges or the Bay Area.
“I told my investors essentially I will have my manufacturing capabilities, with all equipment and people in a year without spending investors’ money yet,” he said.
By this time next year, Ji added, he expects to have grown his team from 50 to 120, including more staffers on the chemistry, manufacturing and control as well as clinical and regulatory sides.
The current team is heavily geared toward discovery, with around 30 of them working on Elpiscience’s three tech platforms: Elpisource for target screening and identification; Immunoshine to assess potential drug candidates on immune cell lines; and AbLego to formulate their own bispecifics.
Ji recently wooed the executive director of Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research in China, Robert Arch, to become Elpiscience’s head of research. Arch reports to Hongtao Lu, co-founder and CSO, who brought similar experience building a pipeline in Zai Lab’s earliest days.
A new CMO will soon join from the US, Ji said, to help steer clinical programs for ES101 and ES102, with an initial focus on lung cancer. Elpiscience had in-licensed the two compounds — the first a bispecific hitting 4-1BB selectively upon PD-L1 binding, the second an OX40 agonist — from La Jolla-based Inhibrx.
By recruiting from all over the world and putting together a stellar scientific advisory board, Elpiscience is circumventing a barrier that Ji believes Shanghai, or China for that matter, needs to overcome for its biotech scene to really boom. He calls it “brainpower.”
“Academic innovation, academic caliber, is really the foundation for both scientific discovery and development and also people supply,” he said. “These years, Chinese academia has been really advancing strong with publications, innovations, all those, but being able to translate those into commercially viable technologies or therapies, there’s still a gap — a gap between both technology transfer and also the gap between translational personnel.”
Lilly Asia Ventures, where Ji is a partner, bought onto the vision early by launching the startup with the help of Hillhouse Capital Group and CHD Investments. Hyfinity Investments led the current round with new investors Tencent, GTJA Investment Group, Dyee Capital, Oriza Holdings, Ming Bioventures, WisdoMont, Parkway Global and others.