Over the course of the past year, it’s become clear that certain elite networks of people in the broader biotech world are able to accomplish big things almost overnight.
Zhi Hong, a longtime infectious disease research expert at GlaxoSmithKline, just found out for himself how big.
Since the end of February, leaving GSK after an 11-year stretch, he’s gained commitments of $260 million — it’s tranched — from some of the top biotech investors on both sides of the Pacific for a new company dubbed Brii Bio that plans to in-license a pipeline of drugs out of the US. And he’s starting out with an ultra-connected industry startup in the US for a biotech partner.
In his corner are Ge Li, who presides over a global science, manufacturing and development empire from WuXi’s base in Shanghai; Bob Nelsen, the technologically nomadic biotech investor at ARCH known for going big on his splashiest new ventures; and Sean Tong, the insider and dealmaker at Boyu Capital who has been making a splash of his own in the US.
And that’s just the beginning. At this stage, Hong has more top-level industry connections than he has staffers. The insiders include Alnylam CEO John Maraganore — a longtime friend and associate — and his ex-GSK colleague Moncef Slaoui on the scientific advisory group. Leon Chen from 6 Dimensions is on the board, along with Neil Shen from Sequoia China and David Yu from Yunfeng. Blue Pool also got involved in the startup round.
“We had to turn some people away,” says Hong. And no wonder. “It’s not that I necessarily want all this money, but I don’t want to go out and raise more.”
George Scangos, who left the helm at Biogen to launch his own infectious disease research company on the West Coast, has come in to help with a licensing deal from his portfolio of infectious disease drugs at Vir — Hong’s specialty.
While pharma giants like Novartis are helmed by young CEOs determined to use digital and data insights to guide their work and marketing, Hong is starting out partnered on that level with AliHealth, the healthcare arm of the Alibaba Group. And he has the personal endorsement of AliHealth chairman Eddie Wu.
WuXi is lending its expertise in genomics and R&D, and Brii plans to use its connections to build a bridge between the US and China, offering an opening into a rapidly changing healthcare market where US biotechs have little or no chance of making a dent on their own. They could also open a two-lane highway, taking Chinese drugs into the world.
That’s not an original idea. But with the regulatory scene in a booming China growing warm and inviting, it’s a timely one.
Hong, though, tells me he isn’t interested in any cheap and easy product pacts. He wants drugs that can make a difference in China, with a public commitment to greater affordability. The philosophy here is to update China’s drug market with cutting-edge therapies, making up for a gap in innovation while expanding access in China.
Brii is opening offices in Shanghai, Beijing, San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina, the last site a legacy of Hong’s longtime involvement with GSK, long after the pharma giant shuttered most of its local research ops in the area. Now he’s recruiting on both sides of the Pacific, and has yet to decide just how big they can be in a year.
Twenty staffers? 50? 100?
It depends on how quickly they can move now, lining up deals.
Things are changing, fast. The zeitgeist of a new biotech era now includes the rapidly growing influence of Chinese entrepreneurs and investors operating on the world scene.
Image: Zhi Hong. GSK via YOUTUBE
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