technology

Billionaire-Backed Cancer Testing Firm Plans Hong Kong IPO

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  • Grail working with advisers, may seek up to $500 million
  • Investors include J&J, Merck, Chinese tech giant Tencent

A U.S.-based cancer detection startup backed by the world’s two richest men is planning a initial public offering in Hong Kong, people with knowledge of the matter said, bolstering the Asian financial center’s push to start attracting biotech listings.

Grail Inc. is working with advisers on the proposed share sale, the people said, The firm may seek to raise as much as $500 million this year, though a final offering amount has not been decided, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified as details are private. The company’s investors include Bill Gates and the personal venture fund of Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, according to its website.

Menlo Park, California-based Grail could become one of the first companies to benefit from proposed new listing rules aimed at attracting early stage biotechnology firms to the Hong Kong bourse. Shanghai Henlius Biotech Inc., backed by Chinese billionaire Guo Guangchang’s Fosun Group, is also planning a listing that could take advantage of the proposal, people familiar with the matter said earlier.

A spokeswoman for Grail declined to comment. 

Grail said in December that its first product, a screening test for a type of cancer that’s prevalent in Southeast Asia and southern China, would be launched this year in Hong Kong. The company’s backers include Tencent Holdings Ltd., China’s biggest Internet company, as well as Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Celgene Corp., Johnson & Johnson Innovation and Merck & Co.

Biggest Biotech Fundraising

The startup last year completed the largest biotech funding round ever, raising over $900 million in the first close of a Series B financing, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The next biggest private funding from the sector is a $500 million round Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna Therapeutics completed earlier this year, according to the data.

Grail, which was formed by U.S.-listed genetic sequencing firm Illumina Inc., announced the latest financing in March and two months later agreed to merge with Cirina Ltd., a biotech company co-founded by Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Dennis Lo.

The company’s goal is to create a “pan-cancer” screening test that can diagnose people at a very early stage even when they have no symptoms, according to a 2016 interview with Jay Flatley, Illumina’s chief executive officer at the time.

Click here to read about promising results in the quest to catch cancer early

As Grail’s name implies, such a test is a much-sought and elusive goal for the industry. Using a blood sample to screen for cancer is an increasingly popular idea because drawing blood is far cheaper and less invasive than a traditional biopsy. The challenges to creating such a test are daunting because the technology is new, and companies will have to prove that they can catch cancer cells as accurately as traditional methods if they hope to upend standard procedures.

— With assistance by Hui Li

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