Nation & World

Chinese investment floods US biotech

Pharmaceutical start-ups are raising money at a breakneck pace

Reuters

Chinese investors have become important drivers of a gold rush that has given a series of small biotech firms multibillion-dollar valuations.
Reuters Chinese investors have become important drivers of a gold rush that has given a series of small biotech firms multibillion-dollar valuations.

Chinese investors are pumping money into U.S. drug start-ups as Beijing seeks to become a global leader in new medicines, adding to a flood of cash flowing to groundbreaking health businesses.

Venture-capital funds based in China poured $1.4 billion into private U.S. biotechnology companies in the three months ending March 31, accounting for about 40 percent of the $3.7 billion that the companies raised in the period overall, according to data provider PitchBook.

At the same time a year earlier, Chinese funds invested $125.5 million, only about seven percent of the total.

Policymakers want to encourage more innovation in China’s manufacturing-intensive economy.

By allowing more investment in U.S. biotechnology companies, the country can gain earlier and easier access to novel therapies typically brought to market first in the West — and share in the potential high returns that can come with them.

Chinese investors have become important drivers of a gold rush that has given a series of small biotech firms multibillion-dollar valuations.

Chinese funds have entered a “major phenomenon” of investing abroad, said Jonathan Wang, senior managing director and co-founder of the Asia fund at OrbiMed Advisors, in a phone interview. Wang is based in Shanghai.

“If you can cure cancer in New York, why not cure cancer in Shanghai as well? You cannot think of a reason,” Wang said.

“Collaboration is a main trend and goal.”

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It’s unclear whether a deepening trade rift with the United States could slow the stream of cash from China to Silicon Valley, Cambridge, Mass., and other medical-innovation hubs. The Trump administration targeted Chinese-made medical devices and drugs in its proposed tariffs, and has said it wants to crack down on Chinese abuse of U.S. intellectual property.

Congress has tried to limit China’s reach in the technology industry.

Breakneck pace

But as Beijing attempts to move the country’s pharmaceutical sector beyond being seen as mostly a maker of low-cost generic medications, the investment wave is likely to continue.

“China has an insatiable appetite for access to the biotech area,” said Joel Marcus, CEO of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a life-sciences real estate investment trust that has a biotechnology venture-capital arm. “I don’t think there’s going to be any shortage of Chinese capital.”

U.S. biotech start-ups are raising money at a breakneck pace. The first quarter was the best-ever start to a year for biotech venture financing, with the average round of $44 million the highest since at least 2008.

Five companies raised more than $200 million — previously, only five other biotechs had ever raised that much in a single round.

Among the biggest winners are companies including Moderna Therapeutics Inc., which is researching the use of messenger RNA in drugs and is now worth $7 billion after raising another $500 million in February.

Moderna declined to comment.

Harmony Biosciences is a Pennsylvania-based company working on treatments for central nervous system disorders such as narcolepsy. It raised $295 million from investors including Nan Fung Life Sciences, the investment arm of Hong Kong conglomerate Nan Fung Group.

“Biotech is still pretty early in its growth curve,” said Peter Bisgaard, managing director for Nan Fung Life Sciences.

Harmony Biosciences also declined to comment.

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Beijing launched an ambitious industrial policy in 2015 dubbed Made in China 2025, making biotech and other innovative businesses eligible for greater government backing.

While authorities curtailed investment outside China in industries such as real estate and gambling last year, they encouraged investment in sectors that fulfill the country’s strategic goals.

A more important market

China appears to be trying to keep advanced medical technology out of the trade fight with the United States. Beijing plans to lift tariffs on foreign cancer drugs on May 1 — a potential boon to Western pharmaceutical companies.

Brad Loncar, CEO of Loncar Investments, said the timing of the tariffs move “probably wasn’t accidental.”

“Anything that potentially affects human health is or should be considered a last resort, and I think both sides are rational enough that they view it that way,” Loncar said in a phone interview.

China once lagged other countries in drug spending despite its large population, but outlays have expanded over the past decade.

In 2012, China surpassed Japan to become the second-largest global drug market behind the United States, according to a report from health-technology company Iqvia, formerly known as QuintilesIMS.

It could spend as much as $170 billion by 2021, compared to $116.7 billion in 2016, the company said.

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Selling drugs in China is also getting easier. Western companies usually waited for approval elsewhere before starting clinical trials in China because of the country’s cumbersome rules.

But those restrictions have been relaxed, leading U.S. companies to view China as a more important market, and making Chinese investors hungry for to share in the returns from new therapies.

“The approval process was significantly shortened,” said Hummer Mars, an investment banker at New York International Capital who often works with Chinese clients seeking takeover targets in the United States.

“That is a major reason why VC firms are making investments into target companies in the U.S., even in early-stage companies.”

For U.S. companies, the ready supply of Chinese cash is adding to already-high demand from U.S. venture-capital firms for new biotech investments, allowing companies to be more selective about whose money they accept.

“Many of our rounds are now oversubscribed so it allows the syndicate to choose who their VCs partners are,” said Elizabeth Stoner, interim CEO of Cambridge-based Semma Therapeutics and managing director at venture-capital firm MPM Capital.

“What the companies are really looking for are investors who can help them in some way.”

Semma, which is researching cell therapies for Type 1 diabetes, raised $114 million in a fundraising round in December.

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The investment was co-led by Eight Roads Ventures, the venture-capital arm of Fidelity International Limited, which has a presence in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Mumbai, and its U.S. home in Boston — the U.S. medical-science capital.

Given the fund’s Asian footprint, Stoner said the decision to go with the company was as much a strategic decision as a financial one.

“It will open up very shortly opportunities, particularly given the large incidence of Type 1 diabetes in Asia and China” she said. “It really does open up the doors.”

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