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ChinaBio at JP Morgan: China Biopharma Books Strong 2020, Despite Pandemic

publication date: Jan 11, 2021
author/source: Richard Daverman, PhD

China's biopharma industry continued to grow at a rapid pace in 2020, in spite of the formidable obstacle presented by COVID-19. Panelists at the China Showcase, a virtual event preceding the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, believe the sector is strong, spurring record-setting levels of investments, partnerships and initial public offerings. Just as important, they expect the growth to continue.

Greg Scott, founder and chairman of the ChinaBio® Group, as well as moderator for the session, opened the discussion with an upbeat assessment: “The first half of 2020 was a stellar year for venture capital and innovative life sciences companies in China, and 2021 is on track to set new records across the board,” he said. “2020 Venture capital investment in healthcare is expected to total over $18 billion, with another $10 billion for cross border partnering, and $11 billion in initial public offerings (IPOs). There have been unprecedented opportunities in the life sciences this year, particularly in China."

It didn't always look like this would happen. When COVID first surfaced in China during the first quarter of the year, the sector became cautious, though it never closed down. “When COVID-19 hit, we saw companies retreating and then very quickly adapting to the situation. By mid-2020, we saw more normal operations,” Scott said.

Victor E. Tong, Jr., a Decheng Capital partner, pointed to greater interest in diagnostic testing, not a surprise given COVID, but equally caused by biopharma's deep interest in oncology therapies. “This year, investors and the biotech ecosystem, in general, have realized diagnostics can bring tremendous value,” he said.

For example, one of Decheng Capital’s portfolio companies recently signed a $481 million contract with the US government for a test that can be used at nursing homes to provide PRC-like sensitivity in only 15 minutes.

Tong continued, “The COVID-19 pandemic has become an advertisement for the healthcare industry, showing that you can bring a vaccine from Phase I to Phase III to FDA approval in less than nine months.”

According to Tong, “There is historic deal-making, with private and public fundings, partnerships and M&As. We see this in every sector, including technology devices and diagnostics, and with equity and M&A deals. Two weeks before the end of 2020 (when the session was recorded), it feels like JP Morgan every day,” he said. “Access to capital is there. It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur.” It was also a good year for Decheng, which recorded a string of impressive exits including the $8 billion acquisition of Grail by Illunina.

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 created interest in infectious disease. Betty Huang, head of business development and licensing for China/APAC at Bayer AG, noted greater interest in the sector: “In the past, investment was relatively low. This year, you see multinational companies collaborating and setting up funds (to develop solutions) for drug-resistant infections,” she said.

She predicted the continued acceleration of digital transformation and called it “a must-have.” In the future, Huang pointed out, “We will have big data to cover more patients” and to develop a better understanding of diseases. To that end, Bayer “is partnering both globally and locally.” Within Bayer,  “China is becoming the number one contributing country for our biopharma division.”

Amy Tang, a venture partner at Qiming Venture Partners, focuses on early-stage development for companies that have the potential to be among the top three players in their fields. Despite COVID-19, “Our investment strategy won’t change,” she said.

“We can’t meet in person, so we’re meeting virtually. Therefore, there’s more opportunity to approach new companies,” Tang said. Qiming is particularly interested in point-of-care diagnostics and medical devices as well as AI-related healthcare technology. “The AI area will be hotter in the future,” she predicted. Vaccines and clinical laboratory services also are poised for growth, Tang added.

PC Zhu, founder and CEO, ATLATL Innovation Center (and landlord to the ChinaBio® Group in Shanghai), pointed out that the use of Zoom, often a derided necessity, has the ability to increase contact. “This year I joined meetings in Boston that previously were physical only. This year, because (they were presented online), I could participate," Zhu said. "New technology will develop to make us feel like real people in these meetings rather than 2D pictures. COVID-19 sped up this change.”

The 60 companies housed in his innovation center are leveraging the virtual environment, too. “Last year I launched a cloud lab, with a microscope room, sales and services, analysis center, etc., with Danaher.” Originally, the facility was used by Chinese companies to more quickly build their organizations.

Since the pandemic began, European and American companies have been using the cloud lab when their own lab spaces shut down due to states’ work-from-home mandates.

“We provide a project manager and technician and run their experiments for them, working through Zoom,” Zhu said. As an industry, “COVID-19 made us work closer together. No nation is safe from this virus unless everyone is safe. We all must support each other rather than just compete.”

But Beyer's Huang admitted there was uncertainty in China about reimbursement for products developed in China for China, given the country's mandated auction system for pricing competing drugs. Pricing in the home country “will be very important for determining pricing in the rest of the world,” she said. “That is a big question mark.”

Huang added that COVID-19 accelerated discussions about online pharmaceutical sales. “As digitalization of healthcare becomes more common, there is policy support for online prescription drugs to ensure availability to every family.” She said she hopes for continued innovation, “not limited to telemedicine, but also for insurance, because it all is about the affordability of innovation.”



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