China, Startups, Venture

With deep ties to China, Vivace exits stealth mode with a lead cancer program, platform and $40M

It’s not unusual for investors to quietly seed a stealth biotech long enough to see if they’re on to something, then debut the company with a Series A. In Vivace Therapeutics’ case, the West Coast biotech waited for the Series B, fleshing out a lead program and a platform technology to help it stand out in a crowd of startups.

In the process, backers have expanded the syndicate to include a lineup of transpacific investors drawn to a company with roots in China as well as California, spawning a new kind of virtual company with a handful of fulltime staffers and some high-profile scientific founders with their own cross-cultural backgrounds that fit this company perfectly.

Kun-liang Guan

Kun-liang Guan at UC San Diego opened the doors at Vivace with research that led to a lead therapy that targets the Hippo-YAP signaling pathway, a new approach to treating cancer.  Bin Liu, a professor at UC San Francisco with a well established entrepreneurial record of his own in biotech, offered the platform tech, focusing on bispecific antibodies touted with “super potent” qualities designed to promote binding “in a nearly irreversible and cell-type specific manner to target cells.”

Sofie Qiao

The CEO is Sofie Qiao, who spent time as managing director at WuXi Ventures, the venture arm of WuXi CEO Ge Li, who runs a large CRO that’s been lending considerable assistance on the contracting side as the biotech gets established. Qiao brought in Leonard Post as CSO, a logical pick after the two built Lead Therapeutics, the company that first developed talazoparib, a PARP inhibitor that was scooped up by BioMarin, later acquired by Medivation and then bagged by Pfizer in a $14 billion buyout.

Back in 2015, Qiao, WuXi and Canaan came in on the $15 million A round used to found the company. Today, they’re pulling the veil off a $25 million B round as they position the company for the clinic.

“We decided to put the money in it and see how it goes,” Qiao recalls in telling me the story about the early days. “In the past two years we have made a lot of progress.”

Post tells me they started off with an inhibition effort, later adding an activator as well. “That was not an easy thing to do,” he notes. There are no obvious druggable targets in the pathway, he adds, but they do have compounds that are doing the trick in preclinical work, which is about as detailed as he wants to get right now.

All the founders in Vivace were born in China, but have deep academic and financial ties in the US. Now they are welcoming Cenova Capital as the lead investor in the B round, including Sequoia Capital China in a syndicate that counted Tim Shannon at Canaan, WuXi Healthcare Ventures and Mission Bay Capital.

Vivace has a staff of 6 now, which may grow just a bit. Qiao and Post sound happy with their experience running a capital-efficient virtual biotech with help in China, a model they first pursued at Lead. They want to improve on that model, not break the mold.

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