Pharmaceutical start-up raises $100M in funding

Staff writerApril 6, 2011 

A new pharmaceutical start-up with one foot in the Triangle and another in China has raised $100 million in financing from investors, an astounding sum for a company just a few months old.

It helps that the new company, Ascletis, was co-founded by Chinese real estate billionaire Jinxing Qi, who also is an investor in the business. Qi has joined forces with Jinzi J. Wu, who said that he he left his position as vice president of global HIV drug discovery at GlaxoSmithKline in Research Triangle Park in February in order to form Ascletis.

Ascletis has an unorthodox strategy that eschews the typical approach of starting with a technology it hopes to exploit.

Instead, it's starting with a management team that is looking to license the rights to late-stage experimental drugs for the Chinese market. The other piece of its two-pronged strategy is assembling a team of scientists to discover new compounds and take them to the proof-of-concept stage, then team up with larger pharmaceutical companies to develop them for the global market.

In addition to funding from a company owned by Qi, Hangzhou Binjiang Investment Holding Co. Ltd., Ascletis also raised money from entrepreneurs in China and the U.S., said Wu. The company already has received $50 million from its investors, and another $50 million has been committed, Wu said.

Wu described Qi as a long-time friend. He said Qi's company is "a major investor" but declined to disclose the amount.

Ascletis already has 8 employees -- two in the Triangle, five in China and Wu himself, who is shuttling back and forth between the two countries. The company hasn't yet rented offices in the Triangle but has a 30,000-square-foot facility in Hangzhou, China.

"We plan to have 50 scientists in a year, maybe 100 scientists in two years," said Wu. Most of those scientists will be in China, but 10 percent to 20 percent will be in the Triangle.

"The cost of doing R&D in China is much less," Wu said. Ascletis is focusing on treatments for cancer and infectious diseases.

In addition, the company's top management will be based in the Triangle. "The big salary guys will be here, not in China," Wu joked.

Jun Tang, who was a chief scientist at GSK who worked for Wu, has joined Ascletis as senior director of medicinal chemistry.

Wu, 48, is a native of China who came to this country 21 years ago to get a Ph.D. in cancer biology from the University of Arizona. He said that although it would make sense logistically for the company's U.S. operations to be in San Francisco because it's that much closer to Japan, he was committed to the Triangle.

"I really like this area," he said. "I live in Chapel Hill. I enjoy North Carolina. I hope I can help create some jobs -- not too many -- for the North Carolina biotech industry."

Wu also said the Triangle is "relatively low cost" compared to biotech centers on the West Coast and Boston.

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