Japan­ese bil­lion­aire Hi­roshi Mik­i­tani bankrolls As­pyr­i­an with a $150M mega-round, back­ing a glob­al roll­out plan for PhI­II can­cer ther­a­py

Among the world’s bil­lion­aires, Hi­roshi Mik­i­tani is one of the most promi­nent en­thu­si­asts. Start­ing with 6 staffers and a small sum of cash, he turned Rakuten in­to an on­line pow­er­house in Japan that is ranked among the world’s top e-tail­ers. An icon­o­clast in an econ­o­my dom­i­nat­ed by tra­di­tion­al­ists, he’s man­dat­ed that every­one in his com­pa­ny learn and speak Eng­lish as their first lan­guage. His re­cent ven­tures in­clude a part­ner­ship with Wal­mart for an on­line su­per­mar­ket in Japan. 

And he’s worth an es­ti­mat­ed $7 bil­lion.

Now, Mik­i­tani is putting in the li­on’s share of a $150 mil­lion mega-round in­to a small, pre­vi­ous­ly low-pro­file San Diego biotech he di­rects as chair­man of the board, adding to the eq­ui­ty he had al­ready bought up. And he’s putting some of that trade­mark gung-ho en­thu­si­asm be­hind a new ven­ture that is jump­ing from a small, sin­gle-arm Phase I/II tri­al in ad­vanced, treat­ment-re­sis­tant cas­es straight in­to a Phase III pro­gram.

A chunk of that new mon­ey is be­ing re­served for build­ing the foun­da­tion of their com­mer­cial pro­gram for ASP-1929, ahead of any mid-stage demon­stra­tion of proof-of-con­cept suc­cess. And Rakuten As­pyr­i­an is go­ing all out to build a ful­ly in­te­grat­ed out­fit, with plans to de­vel­op a pipeline of ther­a­peu­tic pro­grams that it plans to mar­ket on its own, with of­fices in the US, Japan and Eu­rope.

Miguel Gar­cia-Guz­man

CEO Miguel Gar­cia-Guz­man tells me that the mid-stage por­tion of ef­fi­ca­cy and safe­ty da­ta from their 42-pa­tient study of their pho­toim­munother­a­py is weeks away from a pub­lic un­veil­ing. But it’s all for­ward mo­tion now that the com­pa­ny has raised a to­tal of $238 mil­lion.

“We have enough con­fi­dence to move in­to a Phase III straight on,” says Gar­cia-Guz­man, point­ing to their lead ef­fort on an EGFR-tar­get­ing ther­a­py for head and neck squa­mous cell car­ci­no­mas. New mid-stage stud­ies are al­so be­ing set up for oth­er can­cers with an EGFR tar­get, which is quite com­mon.

Why the ear­ly con­fi­dence?

The Japan­ese bil­lion­aire is back­ing a new tech­nol­o­gy that was de­vel­oped at the Na­tion­al Can­cer In­sti­tute in the lab of Hisa­ta­ka Kobayashi, an imag­ing ex­pert who made a some­what serendip­i­tous dis­cov­ery that con­ju­gat­ing an an­ti­body with a dye called IRDye700DX (IR700), in­fus­ing it in­to pa­tients and then hit­ting it with a near in­frared light would cre­mate can­cer cells with­out off-tar­get tox­i­c­i­ty. Kobayashi out-li­censed it to As­pyr­i­an Ther­a­peu­tics, which now goes by the name of Rakuten As­pyr­i­an.

Mik­i­tani be­came fa­mil­iar with the work at the NCI as he was hunt­ing down a bet­ter ther­a­py for his fa­ther, who was dy­ing of pan­cre­at­ic can­cer. And while it was too late to save his fa­ther, he seized on it as the next big thing in can­cer, back­ing As­pyr­i­an from the be­gin­ning.

There’s been a lot more work on the tech­nol­o­gy since those ear­ly days at the NCI, says the CEO. The com­pa­ny has been work­ing on laser tech and dif­fer­ent fiberop­tics “to il­lu­mi­nate large in­ter­nal tu­mors, which can be eas­i­ly im­plant­ed in the tu­mor.” Once the fiberop­tics are in­side the tu­mor, you “switch on the light for 5 min­utes (a day af­ter the in­fu­sion), and treat­ment is com­plete.”

If the an­ti­body con­ju­gate is bound to can­cer cells, says Gar­cia-Guz­man, cell mem­brane in­tegri­ty is de­stroyed and necro­sis is trig­gered.

“This is not a phar­ma­co­log­i­cal ef­fect,” he adds, “it’s more bio­phys­i­cal, this al­lows a very tar­get­ed ap­proach.”

Mik­i­tani is the on­ly named in­vestor in this round, but the CEO tells me that he’s the lead play­er, with a ma­jor­i­ty in­ter­est in the com­pa­ny. Oth­er pri­vate in­vestors have stepped in, but Gar­cia-Guz­man says the biotech has steered clear of the VC set, de­ter­mined to con­trol their own fu­ture and main­tain their in­de­pen­dence.

With Mik­i­tani’s sup­port, the com­pa­ny has swelled from a start­up crew of 10 a cou­ple of years ago to 85 now. By the end of this year, you can ex­pect 100 to 110 on the pay­roll. And they plan to keep on grow­ing ag­gres­sive­ly, look­ing to build out all the func­tions of a biotech up­start with glob­al as­pi­ra­tions.

That’s a tall or­der. But Mik­i­tani seems to spe­cial­ize in tall or­ders. And the staff at As­pyr­i­an is all in.

Im­age: Hi­roshi Mik­i­tani at a con­fer­ence in 2018. AP IM­AGES

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Strategic partnerships have long been an important contributor to how drugs are discovered and developed. For decades, big pharma companies have been forming alliances with biotech innovators to increase R&D productivity, expand geographical reach and better manage late-stage commercialization costs.

Noël Brown, Managing Director and Head of Biotechnology Investment Banking, and Greg Wiederrecht, Ph.D., Managing Director in the Global Healthcare Investment Banking Group at RBC Capital Markets, are no strangers to the importance of these tie-ups. Noël has over 20 years of investment banking experience in the industry. Before moving to the banking world in 2015, Greg was the Vice President and Head of External Scientific Affairs (ESA) at Merck, where he was responsible for the scientific assessment of strategic partnership opportunities worldwide.

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