China is funding the future of American biotech
Silicon Valley is in the midst of a health craze, and it is being driven by “Eastern” medicine.
It’s been a record year for US medical investing, but investors in Beijing and Shanghai are now increasingly leading the largest deals for US life science and biotech companies. In fact, Chinese venture firms have invested more this year into life science and biotech in the US than they have back home, providing financing for over 300 US-based companies, per Pitchbook. That’s the story at Viela Bio, a Maryland-based company exploring treatments for inflammation and autoimmune diseases, which raised a $250 million Series A led by three Chinese firms.
Chinese capital’s newfound appetite also flows into the mainland. Business is booming for Chinese medical startups, who are also seeing the strongest year of venture investment ever, with over one hundred companies receiving $4 billion in investment.
As Chinese investors continue to shift their strategies towards life science and biotech, China is emphatically positioning itself to be a leader in medical investing with a growing influence on the world’s future major health institutions.
Chinese VCs seek healthy returns
We like to talk about things we can interact with or be entertained by. And so as nine-figure checks flow in and out of China with stunning regularity, we fixate on the internet giants, the gaming leaders or the latest media platform backed by Tencent or Alibaba. However, if we follow the money, it’s clear that the top venture firms in China have actually been turning their focus towards the country’s deficient health system.
A clear leader in China’s strategy shift has been Sequoia Capital China, one of the country’s most heralded venture firms tied to multiple billion-dollar IPOs just this year.
Historically, Sequoia didn’t have much interest in the medical sector. Health was one of the firm’s smallest investment categories, and it participated in only three health-related deals from 2015-16, making up just 4% of its total investing activity.
Recently, however, life sciences have piqued Sequoia’s fascination, confirms a spokesperson with the firm. Sequoia dove into six health-related deals in 2017 and has already participated in 14 in 2018 so far. The firm now sits among the most active health investors in China and the medical sector has become its second biggest investment area, with life science and biotech companies accounting for nearly 30% of its investing activity in recent years.
Health-related investment data for 2015-18 compiled from Pitchbook, Crunchbase, and SEC Edgar
There’s no shortage of areas in need of transformation within Chinese medical care, and a wide range of strategies are being employed by China’s VCs. While some investors hope to address influenza, others are focused on innovative treatments for hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
For instance, according to the Chinese Journal of Cancer, in 2015, 36% of world’s lung cancer diagnoses came from China, yet the country’s cancer survival rate was 17% below the global average. Sequoia has set its sights on tackling China’s high rate of cancer and its low survival rate, with roughly 70% of its deals in the past two years focusing on cancer detection and treatment.
That is driven in part by investments like the firm’s $90 million Series A investment into Shanghai-based JW Therapeutics, a company developing innovative immunotherapy cancer treatments. The company is a quintessential example of how Chinese VCs are building the country’s next set of health startups using their international footprints and learnings from across the globe.
Founded as a joint-venture offshoot between US-based Juno Therapeutics and China’s WuXi AppTec, JW benefits from Juno’s experience as a top developer of cancer immunotherapy drugs, as well as WuXi’s expertise as one of the world’s leading contract research organizations, focusing on all aspects of the drug R&D and development cycle.
Specifically, JW is focused on the next-generation of cell-based immunotherapy cancer treatments using chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) technologies. (Yeah…I know…) For the WebMD warriors and the rest of us with a medical background that stopped at tenth-grade chemistry, CAR-T essentially looks to attack cancer cells by utilizing the body’s own immune system.
Past waves of biotech startups often focused on other immunologic treatments that used genetically-modified antibodies created in animals. The antibodies would effectively act as “police,” identifying and attaching to “bad guy” targets in order to turn off or quiet down malignant cells. CAR-T looks instead to modify the body’s native immune cells to attack and kill the bad guys directly.
The international and interdisciplinary pedigree of China’s new medical leaders not only applies to the organizations themselves but also to those running the show.
At the helm of JW sits James Li. In a past life, the co-founder and CEO held stints as an executive heading up operations in China for the world’s biggest biopharmaceutical companies including Amgen and Merck. Li was also once a partner at the Silicon Valley brand-name investor, Kleiner Perkins.
JW embodies the benefits that can come from importing insights and expertise, a practice that will come to define the companies leading the medical future as the country’s smartest capital increasingly finds its way overseas.