China's BeiGene banks $97M to get its cancer drugs into the clinic

BeiGene CEO John Oyler has long said China has all the world-class science and entrepreneurial ambition necessary to become a biotech hotbed. All that's missing is the kind of venture capital interest startups enjoy on the other side of the Pacific, he said. Now his company, at work on a pipeline of cancer treatments, is bucking that trend, hauling in a $97 million round and speeding ahead in the clinic.

Led by Hillhouse Capital, the round also drew interest from Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, Rock Springs Capital, Boxer Capital and "an undisclosed blue chip U.S. public investment fund specializing in life sciences," BeiGene said.

With the cash, BeiGene is pressing forward on four fronts in cancer. In Phase I, the company has a small-molecule BTK inhibitor, a la Ibrutinib; a BRAF inhibitor the company touts as a next-generation take on blockbusters like Zelboraf; and a PARP inhibitor akin to AstraZeneca's recently approved Lynparza. And, slated for Phase I this year is the preclinical BGB-108, an antibody for the protein PD-1 that promises to unblind the immune system to cancerous growth.

Beyond its lead assets, BeiGene is working on a slew of large- and small-molecule cancer treatments, looking to build out an expansive pipeline of therapies against a wealth of targets in oncology. And the latest financing is an affirmation of the young company's potential, Oyler said.

"Our translational research platform continues to produce exciting targeted and immuno-oncology candidates with global best-in-class potential, which we believe may become crucial elements in a rapidly changing oncology landscape that points toward combination therapies in order to provide patients with meaningful solutions," Oyler said in a statement.

BeiGene's big round follows a $100 million January fundraise from Innovent Biologics, a Chinese outfit dividing its attention between biosimilars and proprietary therapies. Each illustrates a growing trend in biopharma: While Western outfits have long been interested in China's commercial appeal, more and more drugmakers and investors are prizing the country's R&D capabilities. Merck ($MRK), Sanofi ($SNY) and Novartis ($NVS) are among the many to blueprint standalone research hubs in China, while venture outfits including OrbiMed have turned a particular focus to biotech startups in the region.

- read the announcement (PDF)