This May, Zhi Hong debuted the ultra-connected trans-Pacific upstart Brii Bio to bridge a gap in innovation between the US and China. Seven months in, he’s using some of those connections to in-license two potential cures for hepatitis B, enter another discovery collaboration and build a new global headquarters, kickstarting a quest to “create a new ground for infectious diseases.”
And with plenty of his $260 million launch fund still in the bank, the CEO already has his eyes set on more partnerships — all coordinated from a new R&D hub being built in Beijing, which will eventually be able to house up to 200 employees, as well as smaller outposts across Shanghai, San Francisco and Hong’s home base of Durham, North Carolina.
“We are spread out into US and China and we have to call one place home, in a sense,” he tells me. “I’m hoping by the end of next year we will have about 50 people in China,” up from the current 20 split between both sides of the Pacific.
Leveraging institutional support for the Beijing facility and being “very frugal” has allowed Brii to concentrate its cash on deals, which will likely remain modest in size: For China rights to VBI Vaccines’ recombinant protein-based immunotherapeutic, Brii is paying an upfront of $11 million, $7 million of which is an equity investment. Additional milestones add up to $117.5 million.
The RNAi therapy from Vir, on the other hand, is part of an existing licensing pact Hong struck with George Scangos when he left GlaxoSmithKline to start Brii. Originating from Alnylam, VIR-2218 is designed to restore patients’ own immune response to HBV by knocking down surface antigens.
“But we cannot assume all the patients will have sufficient amount of intrinsic immunity,” he says. “This is where the VBI 2601 come in where we’re actually going to formulate this in such that will stimulate, induce a broader T cell as well as B cell response.”
There’s more than a hint of a combination approach here, though it will have to wait until the assets go past early-stage testing as monotherapies.
At the same time, Brii researchers will be working on some in-house antibody discovery with WuXi Biologics via an exclusive collaboration, utilizing the CRO powerhouse’s bispecific platform to tackle a couple of novel immunomodulatory targets that Hong is staying mum about. The prestigious Tsinghua University, right next door to Brii’s Beijing site, will lend a hand on the biologics testing.
While efforts to tamper with B cells, T cells and NK cells have inspired considerable interest in oncology, it will represent a new paradigm for infectious disease, Hong says.
Having met with about 80 potential partners, Hong is ready to execute on a rapid succession of deals through 2020 — unless a big deal comes along that necessitates another round of fundraising, he adds. “You never know.”
Image: Zhi Hong. BRII BIO
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