GlaxoSmithKline veteran Zhi Hong launches Brii Biosciences with $260M

Zhi Hong, an 11-year veteran of GlaxoSmithKline, is striking out on his own with a startup geared to improve public health in China. Brii Biosciences' mission is to overcome the challenges that have prevented the spread of innovative medicines throughout China. It starts its journey with $260 million in committed capital and a trio of partnerships. 

"The pace of innovation has accelerated over the past decade, resulting in dramatically better treatments and cures for life-threatening diseases, but the reach of those innovations in China has been limited,” he said in a statement

The regulatory structure in China has been a "big issue," but with recent rapid changes, Hong hopes it will soon no longer be a barrier to innovation. Other obstacles include the time it takes to secure reimbursement in China, Big Pharma's tendency to prioritize other markets over China, and the inability for the majority of Chinese people to pay for, and access, high-quality healthcare, Hong told FierceBiotech. 

To address these issues, Brii is taking a three-pronged approach: partnerships, best-in-class R&D and the application of digital and data insight. The company is based in Shanghai and has operations in Beijing, San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina. 

The first of its three partnerships is with Vir Biotechnologies. Brii has the option to license up to four assets from Vir's pipeline. While Vir has kept pretty quiet on its programs, it identified its first focus to be areas of significant unmet need: chronic infectious diseases, such as HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis B; respiratory diseases; and healthcare acquired infections. 

RELATED: Stealthy Vir allies with Alnylam and others to build infectious disease pipeline 

The startup has inked a deal with WuXi that gives it access to WuXi AppTec and WuXi Biologics' R&D capabilities. It's doing so because Hong sees no reason to reinvent the wheel: "We will really leverage their decadelong investment into their capabilities and don't need to reproduce it on our own. Instead, we will focus our team on core competency of therapeutic areas, as well as production strategies," he said. 

Under its third partnership, with Alibaba, the duo will work on digital approaches to improve the development and delivery of new drugs. For example, Hong said, digital means could be used to educate patients about their medications and the importance of adherence. This would be particularly useful in a country where patients may get limited time with their physician, he said. Another application is collecting hospital data to help in the design of clinical trials. 

The massive $260 million financing was led by ARCH Venture Partners alongside a group of Greater China-based investors: 6 Dimensions Capital, Boyu Capital, Yunfeng Capital, Sequoia Capital, and Blue Pool Capital. 

"How much runway that gives us depends on how successful we are in forming partnerships," Hong said. "The more successful we are, the shorter the runway." 

At GSK, Hong served as a VP and led the pharma company's infectious disease business. Under his leadership, the unit created a "very strong R&D pipeline," establishing a sizable presence in the space. He enjoyed his work but started thinking about his next chapter. 

"One thing I learned at GSK is that there is a much bigger picture. You can't just focus on R&D. You have to think about how to deliver innovation to as many people as you can [because] no matter how innovative your product can be, if it cannot be utilized by as many people as possible, then the value of the innovation is not fully realized," he said.