'Scale and speed': Hillhouse puts its weight behind China startup eyeing cutting-edge tech from around the world
In the relatively small but hefty world of biotechs working to bring new drugs from the West to China, Hillhouse Capital has been an active, if cautious, investor. Not only did it bet big on BeiGene early, it also co-led Everest Medicines’ monster $310 million round to bankroll commercial launches earlier this year.
But now it’s going all-in with its own startup — and a twist to the model.
Ed Zhang and Hua Mu, venture partners who joined the firm early this year, are the co-founders of Overland Pharmaceuticals. Other than the initial focus on oncology, autoimmune diseases and cardiometabolic disorders, the duo isn’t disclosing much about the company yet, although it’s clear that Hillhouse, which had $10.6 billion to spend for its last fund, isn’t holding any money back when it comes to funding deals and wooing talent.
While the setup echoes what Perceptive Advisors is doing through LianBio, Overland says it’s eyeing a different market by targeting platform plays that involve advanced technologies. Think antibody-drug conjugates, cell therapy, RNAi and more.
“From a partnering perspective, I would definitely say we’re more flexible than other typical in-licensing models,” said Ed Zhang, the CBO and COO, for whom “scale and speed” is a mantra.
That means opting for co-development rather than simple licensing, creating spinouts or joint ventures to collaborate on multiple early-stage assets, or even considering equity investment in their partner companies.
Stationed right in Boston, Zhang will leverage the networks he’s developed over the last two decades across multiple biopharma roles. Meanwhile, Mu, the interim CEO and CMO, will split his time between Seattle and the two China offices in Beijing and Shanghai.
Pioneers like Zai Lab and Everest, Mu noted, have “set a very high bar” for China-facing companies looking to bridge the innovation gap.
“In the past, I think the focus was more on the execution, operational futures, right, because those assets had already mitigated risk before,” Mu said, giving the example of Zejula, which Zai Lab licensed from Tesaro when it was in Phase III. “The key was how to execute the program, development and registration in China.”
At a time when Chinese interest in cutting-edge drugs and technologies runs high, thanks in part to regulatory reforms and free flow of VC cash, that’s no longer enough. For newcomers, the current landscape requires them to work more closely with collaborators, integrating local expertise with global knowledge — a “much more sophisticated and demanding” approach. But it’s also the kind of challenge that Overland was built to meet.
By tapping into Hillhouse’s global network and biotech ecosystem in Asia, the company promises to put together the development, manufacturing and commercial know-how that would convince top-notch developers to entrust Overland with their assets.
“Investing or partnering with those technology platform companies require a different level of capital resources and expertise in those licensed territories,” Zhang said. “But actually that is by design. That is our focus.”