Growing up in China, Zhi Hong saw the healthcare challenges of his homeland firsthand. Despite the country’s economic strides, life science innovation there lags advances made in the West, he says. The GlaxoSmithKline veteran now wants to use his experience to adjust the balance. Backed by $260 million in financing, his startup, Brii Biosciences, plans to deliver new medicines in new ways to patients in the most populous nation in the world.
“I really believe that by serving as a bridge, I can bring the innovation to China,” says Hong, Brii’s co-founder, president, and CEO.
The U.S. is the largest and most lucrative market for pharmaceutical companies but a growing number of them are casting their eyes toward China. Brii, founded earlier this year, is one of the latest. The company, which is based in in Durham, NC, and Shanghai, China, has no drugs in its pipeline yet. But it has a partnership under its belt that could provide drug candidates, cash to procure more compounds, and a strategy to develop better ways to commercialize therapies in China.
During his 11 years at GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK), Hong led the pharmaceutical giant’s infectious disease research. Though he was based at GSK’s Research Triangle Park, NC, site, he traveled to China frequently. He helped form and then lead the GSK Institute for Infectious Diseases and Public Health, which develops new infectious disease treatments for patients in China. He also served as a director of ViiV Healthcare, an HIV company formed as a joint venture between GSK and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE).
Hong says many biotech startups targeting China focus on taking a single drug through clinical trials. While that approach has worked, it takes a lot of time. The strategy also does not factor in the challenges of making a drug commercially successful in China. In forming Brii, Hong says he wants the ability to move more quickly than traditional biotech startups. Brii already has a partnership that could provide a fast start. Under a deal with San Francisco’s Vir Biotechnology, Brii gained marketing rights in China for as many as four of Vir’s drugs. Vir, which launched last year backed by financial commitments exceeding $500 million, is nearing the start of clinical trials on its first infectious disease drugs.
Though Brii is still building its drug pipeline, the company is already laying the groundwork for drug commercialization through a partnership with AliHealth, the healthcare unit of Alibaba Group. Hong says AliHealth’s digital and data capabilities will be used to develop new tools to improve how patients become aware of new drugs. These tools will also help patients stick to the schedule of taking these medications. Hong says that in the West, patients often don’t follow the proper dosing instructions for their medications. Consequently, patients may not receive the full benefit of a drug, or they can experience complications. Digital technologies can give patients new ways to understand their medications and help them follow the proper dosing instructions. With this approach, Hong says Brii aims to go further than many drug companies typically do.
“I’m not just a medicine company providing a medicine,” he says. “I’m providing a very different patient experience.”
Hong says infectious disease makes sense as a starting point for Brii, given his prior experience at GSK. But he also wants to address other diseases. Another area that Brii might enter is cancer, though Hong says he will be careful because in his view, the field is too crowded. With many cancer drugs going after similar targets, it will be difficult for a new therapy to differentiate itself once it reaches the market, he says.
In the nearer term, Brii is hunting for more partnerships similar to the one it has with Vir. Hong says he’s looking for … Next Page »