Roche Accelerator in Shanghai Helps Biotechs Expand Collaborations & Networks


Biotech companies are hopping onto the Roche bandwagon and its China vision, as Roche opens the Roche Accelerator in Shanghai. Although Roche declined to comment on the number of companies signing on, at least two – METiS Therapeutics and SQZ Biotech – have publicly announced their participation in this new accelerator in China.

METiS, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was among the first companies to join the Roche accelerator. Its reasons include “establishing a closer connection with a global leader in healthcare…and exploring deeper collaboration opportunities,” Chris Lai, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO, said when making the announcement.

METiS is developing an AI platform, AiTEM, to enable more efficient candidate selection and formulation design, programmable nucleic acid drug development and delivery design. “AiTEM has completed its proof-of-concept studies and is being used by many collaborators, including multinational corporations,” Lai told BioSpace. It also is developing an AiTLNP platform to support companies developing lipid nanoparticles for gene and RNA therapeutics, such as mRNA vaccines, siRNA and CRISPR therapeutics.

As part of the accelerator, “METiS hopes to support Roche in transforming the efficiency of small molecule formulation development, enable delivery of gene and RNA therapeutics and co-develop a pipeline with Roche accelerator affiliates,” Lai said. That includes working with Roche and other Accelerator companies in the United States and European Union.

For METiS, it’s important to be in China as well as the rest of the world. “Being the first batch of members to the Roche Accelerator (Shanghai) brings METiS closer to top biotech companies in China,” Lai pointed out, thus expanding the potential for collaborations with leading companies there.

Importantly, the benefits flow both ways. Participation in the Roche Accelerator (Shanghai) will bring the top biotech companies closer to a cutting-edge AI platform designed specifically for biopharmaceutical development. As Lai said, “Our AiTEM platform helps Roche and the Accelerator companies bring formulations to the discovery phase. This enables an effective ‘lead + formulation’ optimization and improves probability of success of small molecule drugs.”

Likewise, SQZ Biotech, a cell therapy company headquartered in Watertown, MA, is collaborating with the Roche Accelerator to support early strategic planning and, possibly, China-based initiatives. As Armon Sharei, Ph.D., founder and CEO, told BioSpace, “China has significant patient needs across the disease areas where we are developing cell therapies. Our goal in China is to extend the mission of the company, which is to create a new generation of cell therapies that could enable transformative patient outcomes across disease areas while remaining safe and practical to administer.” As Roche has been a longstanding partner and has a long track record in China, it is a natural collaborator as SQZ extends its presence there through what it calls its China Initiative.

SQZ is developing its proprietary Cell Squeeze technology, which temporarily disrupts the cell membrane to open, thus allowing biological material of interest to diffuse into the cell. Therapies are in Phase I/II development for head and neck, cervical and anal cancers, along with early-stage programs for celiac disease, Type I diabetes and chronic hepatitis B.

 “Over the past few months, SQZ has shared its intent to provide external life sciences groups access to our exciting technology in both research and clinical manufacturing settings,” Sharei said. Its Cell Squeeze technology is relevant to the range of indications being pursued by Roche Accelerator companies, “including oncology, immunology, neuroscience, RNA therapy and cell therapy.”

Sharei said SQZ plans to house aspects of its China Initiative at the Roche Accelerator. “We envision a small team of locally-hired talent working at the Accelerator when it opens. Shanghai has a strong life sciences education and industry ecosystem that will support our recruitment efforts,” he pointed out. 

 The Shanghai team will collaborate with U.S.-based colleagues for cross-training and to enhance the development of ideas and solutions, Sharei said. “Through this exchange, we foresee developing a transpacific partnership mindset and a greater understanding of domestic needs and interests.”

 The Roche Accelerator is evidence of Roche’s continuing belief in the opportunities resulting from China’s scale, and its commitment to the biopharma industry and emerging innovation. “By 2030, China aims to be the leading healthcare market in the world, and our aspiration is for Roche to become a leading healthcare company in China,” the company said when introducing the Accelerator.

To that point, after the sixth plenary session of the 19th Communist Party of China Central Committee last autumn, Shanghai’s mayor called for additional support for the city’s biopharma cluster and efforts to enhance the industry’s development. Shanghai’s three-year plan includes increasing the annual industrial output of biopharmaceuticals by 33% (from 600 billion yuan to 800 billion yuan -- approximately $28 billion USD).

The Roche Accelerator (Shanghai) is just one of several incubators founded by Western companies. Ilumina partnered with Sequoia Capital to launch a genomics incubator in Shanghai in early 2021. Known as the “Sequoia Capital China Intelligent Healthcare Genomics Incubator, Powered by Illumina,” it offers at least $500,000 in funding for a few select companies, as well as lab space and access to expertise. A couple years earlier, in 2019, Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s JLABS opened an incubator in Shanghai. Like the Roche Accelerator, JLABS@Shanghai is located in Shanghai's Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park. It currently accommodates 41 companies in its 4,400-meter facility. Merck KGaA’s Accelerator China is a six-month program that provides up to €50,000 funding and includes access to its Shanghai Innovation base and exposure to investors and business partners.

The Roche Accelerator is designed to help companies bridge the gap between idea and proof-of-concept. The 5,000 square meter (53,819 square foot) facility will house state-of-the-art laboratories, offices and collaboration spaces. “The Accelerator plans to offer shared support services to its members, including human resources systems, procurement systems, intellectual property and legal services,” Sharei added. “This may be helpful to us as we work to identify and secure talent, as well as manage daily business operations.”

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