Shooting straight for Venclexta, a seasoned Chinese CEO has global dreams for his startup
As one of the founding execs and longtime chief medical officer at Betta Pharma, Fenlai Tan isn’t just well aware of the allure of a me-better strategy in China. He helped create it.
Over the past 11 years, the biotech — which took its name for the vocal resemblance to “better” — had accrued a whopping $9.2 billion valuation (RMB$60 billion) thanks to a single drug: icotinib, a first-generation EGFR inhibitor that became China’s first approved targeted therapy after proving just as effective as AstraZeneca’s Iressa in a head-to-head trial, and safer for Chinese patients.
Tan’s new ambitions, though, go even further.
Now in the CEO seat, he’s landed $35 million in a pre-B round for Guangzhou Lupeng Pharma, the startup he co-founded with Yi Chen. Instead of first-in-China, they will be gunning for global premier status with a slate of small molecule drugs that they believe would be attractive even in the eyes of multinational drugmakers.
Lupeng is among a new generation of startups eager to do more than becoming a bridge for Western drugs into China or fast follower — both strategies that have been successfully adopted but, some would argue, might be overheated.
“A lot of times it probably is not me-better, it’s me-worse probably,” Tan told Endpoints News. “If you look at like PD-1, there’s like 180-something — over 70-something PD-1s already went to the clinical stage. How come? It’s not possible, you know, we’ll have 70 of this kind of PD-1 inhibitors on the market.”
Meanwhile more established players, from Junshi to I-Mab to Tan’s old colleagues at Jacobio, have shown it’s possible for homegrown drugs to shine on the international stage, with their respective deals for Covid-19 and CD47 antibodies.
For Lupeng, the pitch right now is centered around a lead drug targeting BCL-2, which is being tested in patients in China, the US, the UK and Spain. Tan sees the drug as a “real competitor” to AbbVie and Roche’s Venclexta, which was the first and remains the only BCL-2 inhibitor on the market.
Chen, a medicinal chemist by training who’s based in San Francisco, is leading the discovery effort while Tan brings the clinical expertise to coordinate global trials. Lupeng now employs 62 staffers, including a handful executing on clinical development in the US.
Two more blood cancer drugs are in the clinic, and he expects two more programs — one for hepatitis B and one for multiple sclerosis — to follow suit soon.
Singapore’s Temasek led the round, which is likely to be the second to last before an IPO. Lake Bleu Capital, Lilly Asia Ventures and Fontus Capital also invested.