The Boston-China Biopharma Connection

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One of its architects is Frank Lee, formerly chief technology officer of Cambridge, MA’s Millennium Pharmaceuticals and now CEO of Dragonfly Sciences, a Wellesley, MA, CRO with a lab in Shanghai.

Lee is a second generation Chinese-American—his parents emigrated from southern China to California, where he grew up. Two years ago he formed Dragonfly to capitalize on China’s low labor costs and the fact that biotech companies increasingly outsource rote tasks such as cloning genes and producing monoclonal antibodies for preclinical research. “WuXi has really gotten big pharma companies comfortable with outsourcing chemistry to China,” he says. Now Dragonfly and others are doing the same for biologics. “At the beginning of last year, we were a just tiny company with a handful of employees,” he adds. “But all these big pharma companies were sending teams of senior VPs to visit us, looking for biology services.”

His CRO business was just for starters, though: Lee’s long-term plan was to use Dragonfly as a launching pad for an enterprise that would discover and develop new biologics—a Chinese Millennium. “Last year, I thought I might have the opportunity to start a real biotech company in five to eight years,” he says. “But things are changing so fast I’ve become convinced that the time is actually now. And I’m learning that I’m not the only one.” He declined to elaborate on his current plans, but it’s fair bet they’ll soon bear fruit—Lee’s clout with venture capitalists got a major boost last month when Bristol-Myers Squibb agreed to shell out $430 million for a biotech he co-founded before Dragonfly, Adnexus Therapeutics of Waltham, MA.

Despite its rapidly building momentum, China’s biopharma industry has a long way to go before Westerners’ medicine chests will be stocked with drugs made in Middle Kingdom—for one thing, U.S. and other consumers won’t soon forget the recent barrage of scary news about toxic Chinese toys and other products.

But it seems Western investors and corporations will have few reservations about banking on the emerging makers of such medicines—after all, it’s not often one gets to take a ride on a leaping tiger.

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