CEO: Samantha Du
Zai Lab made our list mainly because of its founder and CEO, Samantha Du, a celebrity entrepreneur and, in many people’s view, the godmother of China’s biotech industry.
Twenty years ago, when China’s domestic pharmaceutical industry revolved almost entirely around generic medicines, Du left her seven-year stint at Pfizer in the U.S. and returned to China to join the newborn Chi-Med. There, she was originally brought on for investment strategy. But after closing three joint venture deals, Du decided to build an in-house drug R&D unit, Hutchison MediPharma, one of China’s first biotech companies focused on developing innovative dugs.
Under her watch, Chi-Med built an innovative pipeline, including Eli Lilly-partnered Elunate (fruquintinib), which was the first homegrown drug approved in a major cancer type in China.
Du left Chi-Med in 2011 to lead healthcare investments at the venture capital firm Sequoia China, a regular biotech backer. But just a few years later, she hopped back on the entrepreneurship wagon.
In 2014, Du founded Zai Lab. The timing couldn’t have been better. In the ensuing years, China introduced waves of new policies to support drug R&D and improve regulatory practices to better align with international standards.
Positioning itself as the “gateway to China for innovative assets,” Zai currently leans heavily on in-licensing products for China development and commercialization.
“Around 70% of innovative drugs have not yet been brought to China, even though they’ve been approved elsewhere,” Du said in a Nature Review Drug Discovery interview in 2018. “So we started with thinking about picking this low-hanging fruit, by in-licensing post-approval projects or compounds that have made it past phase 3.”
And Du’s clout in China’s biotech ecosystem made the company a popular collaborator. “She is widely regarded as one of the most influential biotech innovators and entrepreneurs in China,” SVB Leerink analyst Jonathan Chang told Forbes in 2018. “The connections and experience of the team facilitate the kind of business development deals they have been able to achieve, as partners are looking for a team that has the track record to develop and commercialize drugs in China.”
Zai’s clinical pipeline covers drugs bought from a broad range of companies, mostly foreign biotechs that don’t have operations in China. Companies Zai has licensed drugs from include GlaxoSmithKline, Regeneron, Incyte, Deciphera, Entasis Therapeutics, Five Prime Therapeutics, MacroGenics, Novocure and Paratek Pharmaceuticals.
In 2016, Zai obtained China rights to Tesaro’s PARP inhibitor Zejula, two years before GSK acquired Tesaro for $5.1 billion. At the end of 2019, the drug was cleared by Chinese authorities as a maintenance therapy for patients with recurrent ovarian cancer who respond to platinum-based chemotherapy, making it Zai Lab’s first commercial product in the Chinese mainland. In September, Zejula was further approved in the front-line maintenance setting.
Zai's other marketed drug is the Novocure electric field therapy Optune, which China’s drug regulators approved in glioblastoma in May.
In the first half of 2020, the two drugs brought in sales of $19.2 million for Zai, ahead of industry watchers’ expectations of $16.4 million. “We view the initial sales number as a positive that highlights the Zai Lab experience and knowledge of the China market even in the face of the global pandemic,” Chang wrote to investors in August.
Right now, Zai’s in-house R&D is at an early stage, with preclinical assets targeting CD47 for multiple tumor types and IL-17 for psoriasis, as well as other oncology and autoimmune programs.
Zai first listed on Nasdaq through a $173 million IPO in 2017. It just pulled off a secondary listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in September, raising $761 million.