Bringing innovative, clinically differentiated medicines to Chinese patients
CEO: Zhi Hong
Based: Shanghai and Durham, North Carolina
Clinical focus: Infectious diseases (and more)
The scoop: During his last few years at GlaxoSmithKline as SVP and head of the infectious diseases unit, Zhi Hong, Ph.D., was tasked with helping to build a public health institute in China focused on infectious diseases. “It was really in that last few years that I was able to understand the innovation and the access issues facing China,” he recently told FierceBiotech. To him, the problem is not just about developing new science but also about delivering scientific innovations to more people.
That’s what Hong had in mind when he created Brii Biosciences, a Sino-American biotech focused on bringing cutting-edge medicines to China. Luckily, a group of high-profile investors and world-class biopharma veterans shared his vision and joined the endeavor, offering $260 million in initial funding, partnerships and their scientific and commercial acumen.
What makes Brii fierce: Many Chinese biotechs have recently emerged with in-licensing deals, but what makes Brii different?
First, Brii won’t invest in a me-too compound just to beef up its pipeline or rush to the commercial stage. In Hong’s own words, “it has to be a drug that [has] the transformative potential to address the true unmet needs in China.” When Brii was founded in May, it already had options to license four infectious diseases programs from George Scangos’ Vir Biotechnology, a 2017 Fierce 15 winner, but Hong said he’d wait until proof-of-concept data to make a move.
And because Brii is looking for truly differentiated assets, there’s one area Hong said he has to "think very hard" about entering, and that’s oncology. As many biotechs in China are crowding into cancer these days, seemingly without the sophistication to understand the downstream risk, it might lead to chaotic competition, Hong said.
Plus, a $260 million investment is a large sum for a startup, but it reflects Brii’s outlook of paying top dollar for the best innovation, and it shows the kind of support Hong has from investors. Brii counts Vir’s backer ARCH Venture Partners, 6 Dimensions Capital, Boyu Capital, billionaire Jack Ma-backed Yunfeng Capital, Sequoia Capital and Blue Pool Capital as its investors—and as an exhibit of their commitment, their founders sit on Brii’s board.
“My investors basically said, look we don’t want you to worry about raising money, […] so you do whatever you want to do, you go at the biggest opportunity you can,” he explained.
These investors are clearly betting on Hong and his team’s ability to identify and develop the best science. Hong himself practically built up GlaxoSmithKline's HIV success today, being the key behind its blockbuster-selling Tivicay (dolutegravir). His CMO, Li Yan, M.D., Ph.D., held global drug development leadership roles at GSK and Merck & Co. Head of medicinal chemistry Lianhong Xu, Ph.D., was co-inventor of components in Gilead’s blockbusters Harvoni and Genvoya.
Even with that large chunk of investment capital, Hong insisted that the company will never do business simply from a profit perspective at the expense of patient access to its treatments. “The fundamental principle is very simple, you can't have a great innovation but fewer people using it; that means the value of the innovation is not fully realized,” he said.
That was probably the scientist in Hong talking, and the company already has a solid plan for running the business, with deep understanding of the Chinese market in mind.
“A lot of companies in China, they don’t really have the experience of taking a compound from the beginning to the end, to the market. So, oftentimes they fall into what I call the science trap; that is, they’re defining their own innovation without regard of patient needs or market feedback,” said Hong.
Brii has picked its investors strategically, making sure they come not only with money but with capabilities as well. When it landed on the biotech scene in May, Brii had already nailed two other partnerships with companies closely tied to its investors.
For one, Brii is entrusting its R&D activities to WuXi AppTec; WuXi’s Ge Li has been 6 Dimensions’ chairman since the venture shop was born last May in a merger between WuXi Healthcare Ventures and Frontline BioVentures. Brii also inked a digital and data insight deal with AliHealth, the healthcare arm of Ma’s Alibaba Group, to explore novel approaches to optimize clinical and commercial efforts.
Hong made it clear that Brii will focus only on China. “I think it's just too much a distraction when you try to handle multiple markets or multiple regulatory environments,” he argued.
“In China, it’s all about how you leverage that volume of patients and then to make medicine more affordable,” he said. “So, I think in China, market access will be run very different as compared to the U.S. where people just raise prices every year.” That’s one reason why Brii has tapped AliHealth to modernize its commercial organization to reduce cost and provide better access to patients.
Acknowledging that China is very much a government-run healthcare system, Hong has met with the mayor of Beijing and set the biotech’s R&D base in the country’s capital city. It has also signed a collaboration deal with Tsinghua University to help build the top institution’s clinical capabilities.
For now, Brii is focused on infectious diseases and is actively looking to branch out into other areas, and it is incubating a couple of early discovery programs in-house. Besides Beijing, it has set up offices in Shanghai, San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina. While the U.S. team will focus on partnerships and global strategies, team China is responsible for clinical and commercial development.
Investors: ARCH Venture Partners, 6 Dimensions Capital, Boyu Capital, Yunfeng Capital, Sequoia Capital and Blue Pool Capital