How many of us were wondering what would happen in 2021 – the “post-Covid era”? Well, it’s become increasingly clear that the year has been moving much more quickly than we originally expected. And from where I sit in Asia Pacific, there are challenges of course but it’s clear that we are rounding the bend and heading straight into the future with the rising opportunities.
During the 2021 ChinaBio Partnering Forum which I participated in alongside other industry leaders in May, we were excited to hear about new records in the number, amount and size of new funds raised, VC investment, IPOs and strategic partnering collaborations despite the pandemic. In 2020, 18 Chinese biotechnology companies were listed on NASDAQ, the Hong Kong Exchange in Biotech and the new Shanghai Stock Exchange STAR Market, with a total financing of US $4.793 billion and a total valuation of $40.5 billion.
Take Cell Therapy as an example. The number of cell therapy-focused start-ups are increasing, investors are taking notice of promising companies, and the pharmaceutical industry are placing big bets as well, by accelerating collaborations in research and development with many cutting-edge companies. The collaboration and worldwide licensing agreement with Legend Biotech to develop, manufacture and commercialize LCAR-B38M, a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell candidate, is an excellent example of how we approach science and strategic partnerships. The revolutionary development of platform technologies also opened new doors for us to collaborate with external partners by leveraging their cutting-edge computational models to enhance the screening process and identify the most promising molecules to advance to the next stage. Our long-term collaborations with HitGen Inc. in China to screen HitGen’s DNA Encoded Libraries (DELs) for a series of targets in different therapeutic areas and with PeptiDream Inc., in Japan to use its proprietary Peptide Discovery Platform System technology for identifying macrocyclic/constrained peptides against targets of interest are two classic examples.
The rise of digitalization is also a significant trend in healthcare in the region. According to ChinaBio® the top three 2020 investments in China were not in pure drug companies, or even in companies that are part of the vaccine supply chain, but rather in digital health companies. This is indicative of the digital transformation that we are seeing in the healthcare industry that has accelerated over the last year as a result of COVID-19. Some of the digital trends that are continuing are AI drug discovery, AI early disease detection and big data-enabled patient stratification, precision treatment and cross sector collaboration etc., where we have all built strong partnerships.
- AI drug discovery: With Insilico Medicine, which is also a JLABS Shanghai resident company, we are collaborating to generate novel and fully patentable chemical scaffolds for difficult targets using their drug design platform.
- AI solutions for early detection: With our partner DiaNei Biotechnology, we are currently exploring how to leverage their AI solutions for the early detection of lung cancer, which will complement our existing work with the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson in China.
- Big data bridging different sectors in healthcare: While we have known the power of big data in healthcare for many years, we are seeing an emerging trend in China that involves leveraging big data to create new solutions through collaborations across different sectors in healthcare. One of our more recently linked collaborations is with Taikang, a Chinese online health insurance company. Together, we are developing an innovative sports injury-related insurance package that aims to enable timely diagnosis and appropriate surgical treatment for patients.
Finding new ways to innovate is always top of mind for our team at Johnson & Johnson Innovation – whether it be collaborating with partners or challenging ourselves to think bigger. In May, I met with many existing strategic partners and internal colleagues at the launch of EXPAND 2.0, the second co-hort of our annual secondment program to develop the entrepreneurial mindset and skillset of our talent in Asia Pacific. Across the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies in China and Japan, 32 employees will be working part-time at start-ups that are strategic collaborators of Johnson & Johnson Innovation. I believe that talent development is at the core of life science ecosystem growth in Asia Pacific, and with the EXPAND and Champion programs, this is exactly what we set out to do.
We have also been fortunate to receive support and recognition from both our strategic partners and the local government for our innovation efforts. Earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson was recognized as the first foreign-funded open innovation platform to have been accredited by the Shanghai Municipal Government, in accordance with its Shanghai Government Regulations on Encouraging the Establishment and Development of Foreign-invested Centers. Speaking of strong support from the local government, we are entering our 2nd year anniversary with JLABS @ Shanghai this year and are proud to share that we have supported a total of 55 resident companies since our 2019 opening – 9 of which have joined us this year alone! To date, 43 resident companies of JLABS @ Shanghai have engaged in collaborations, and 11 have entered into at least one collaboration with a company of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies.
With all of this – and with much thanks to all of you – we are going into the second half of the year with a strong spirit of innovation and a solid foundation to build on throughout the rest of 2021. I am looking forward to seeing how our teams continue to deliver breakthrough solutions for patients through unique collaborations in this dynamic region in the spirit of innovation, collaboration, and perseverance.
Dr. Dan Wang is the Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Asia Pacific. In this role, she is responsible for managing a portfolio of co-investments spanning across all three sectors of Johnson & Johnson and expanding the external networks within the innovation ecosystem.