Helsinn sets up a boutique investment fund with a roving eye for oncology upstarts

If you’re starting up an early-stage biotech focused on cancer R&D, Helsinn has set up a boutique venture arm that just might be interested in stepping in at the ground floor.

Until now, the Swiss company has been focusing its attention on cancer supportive care, primarily backing late-stage work. But the new Helsinn Investment Fund is designed to join syndicates with an eye for early stage plays.

“We have in the past seen a lot of early-stage opportunities,” Helsinn Group CEO Riccardo Braglia tells me.

But they missed out, even as he made some personal investments of his own. Now Helsinn is investing $50 million in tech projects that range from new drugs to diagnostics and devices. And it’s already made investments in Mei Pharma, QuantuMDx and Clifford Stocks’ OncoResponse to get things going.

The Theraclone CEO set up OncoResponse last fall to spin out his platform antibody discovery engine into a new company focused on the burgeoning field of cancer immunotherapies in partnership with MD Anderson in Houston. In the Series A add, announced this morning, Helsinn is putting in half of the $7 million in new funds, with GreatPoint Ventures contributing the other half. The total Series A is now close to $20 million.

These aren’t record sums Braglia is talking about.

These days, it’s not at all unusual to see venture investors raise hundreds of millions of dollars to back big rounds for upstart biotechs — especially in new cancer tech as investors pump billions of dollars into oncology companies. And Braglia knows that he won’t be stepping in as a majority shareholder on the big investments.

His role: “The investor who can make the difference.”

His sweet spot will be in the $3 million to $6 million arena, looking for a seat on the board as he builds on good relationships with key people in the R&D world.

That gives Helsinn the wherewithal to back 10-15 upstart oncology biotechs, and Braglia is prepared to travel, looking around the U.S., UK, the Nordic companies, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Israel in search of backing the right outfits.

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