Chinese billionaire backs $100M U.S./China biotech launch

A veteran GlaxoSmithKline drug developer and a Chinese real estate magnate have joined forces to launch a new biotech with $100 million in venture funds and a plan to straddle the planet, with one leg planted in Research Triangle Park, NC and the other in Hangzhou, China. CEO Jinzi J. Wu, who has worked at a string of biopharma companies over the years and headed HIV drug development at GSK, says Ascletis will focus on developing new therapeutics for cancer and infectious diseases, with half of its Series A coming in the first tranche.

The round was led by Hangzhou Binjiang Investment Holding, an operation formed by the Chinese real estate billionaire Jinxing Qi, and includes a roster of unnamed angel investors. The biotech plans to use its cache of cash to build up its scientific team and execute a two-prong business strategy: In-licensing pharmaceuticals that can be sold in China while pursuing early-stage drugs that can developed through proof of concept and then partnered globally.

The traditional biotech business model calls on investors to back a developer for five to 10 years before they can expect to make money, Wu tells FierceBiotech. "I don't think with the current economic conditions investors have such patience."

So the company plans to in-license late-stage or even marketed products from pharma companies which can be sold in the booming Chinese market while Ascletis builds a pipeline of its own therapeutics from lead optimization through candidate selection and on to Phase II, when a pharma company can step in and handle late-stage development work.

Right now the company has eight employees, adds Wu, who left GSK on February 1 as he finalized plans for the start-up. Ascletis plans to beef up its workforce to 50 in the first year and then up to 100 scientists in the second year, with the bulk of their investigators operating in Hangzhou and 10 percent to 20 percent of the staff in North Carolina.

Says Wu: "The strategy is formed in the U.S. Execution is done in China."

"Ascletis has assembled an experienced U.S.-based management team with proven ability in the discovery and development of high value therapeutics for global medical needs, who can effectively leverage China's highly trained workforce and cost-efficiencies for the company's discovery and development efforts," said Qi, who has been profiled as one of the world's billionaires in Forbes magazine.

- here's the Ascletis release