Owlstone gains Li Ka-shing as investor in breathalyzer-like cancer diagnostic

Owlstone Medical Ltd. has attracted funding from Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing to help bring its Breath Biopsy breathalyzer-type of testing for detecting lung cancer to market, adding his private investment company Horizons Ventures to its roster of investors which already included Aviva Ventures — the investment arm of global insurance company Aviva Plc — and Chris Toumazou, Regius professor of engineering at Imperial College London and an investor in medical device companies.

The Cambridge, U.K.-based diagnostics company said it has raised $15 million in a funding round co-led by Horizons Ventures and Aviva Ventures, as well as follow-on funding from existing investors. Owlstone intends to use the cash to commercialize its Breath Biopsy platform for detecting lung cancer and continue trials in various other cancers, as well as expand its existing precision medicine services to the pharmaceutical industry.

Privately-held Owlstone has struck up collaborations with pharmaceutical companies including GlaxoSmithKline PLC to use its breathalyzer-type device in the early detection of respiratory illness, by analyzing biomarkers on the breath that can identify disease.

Other research alliances Owlstone has agreed include the largest ever breath-based clinical trials on colorectal and lung cancer, agreements with the U.K.'s National Health Service and with Cancer Research UK which is testing the device to spot cancer earlier in bladder, breast, head and neck, pancreatic and prostate cancers among others in the so-called PAN cancer trial.

"We believe Owlstone Medical is positioned to become a strong player in the fields of early cancer detection and precision medicine across multiple therapeutic areas," said Patrick Zhang of Horizons Ventures.

"We are confident that Owlstone Medical's Breath Biopsy platform could have a major impact on healthcare," he added.

Asian investment in biotech on the rise

Asian investors have markedly stepped up their search for investments in biotech and pharmaceutical companies in Europe and the U.S., according to industry experts speaking at the Sachs European Life Sciences CEO forum in Zurich, Switzerland last week.

AstraZeneca PLC announced it was spinning out promising early compounds from its research and development unit MedImmune, LLC into a company called Viela Bio, backed by three Chinese investors, Boyu Capital, 6 Dimensions Capital and Hillhouse Capital.

Horizons Ventures is the private investment arm of Li, ranked the richest man in Hong Kong in a recent Forbes line-up and one of Asia's most successful entrepreneurs. Best known as chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd., his swathe of investments stretches from energy to technology to property and ports.

A generous benefactor to medical research and healthcare projects in particular, his Li Ka Shing Foundation has been funding cancer research at Cambridge University for over a decade and a state-of-the-art Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute named its flagship center after him in February 2007.

Billy Boyle, CEO of Owlstone, said that the connection with Li was initially made via the PAN cancer trial, which is taking place in collaboration with researchers at the Li Ka Shing Centre in Cambridge.

By 2030, the number of new cancer cases per year is expected to reach 22 million globally and early non-invasive detection could make a real difference to survival, Professor Richard Gilbertson, Li Ka Shing professor of Oncology and Director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Center, said at the start of the PAN cancer trial in July 2017.

Cancer killed 8.8 million people in 2015 and 1 in 2 people will develop the disease in their lifetime.

Boyle said: "We are delighted that Horizons Ventures has joined forces with Aviva to co-lead this funding round.

"Since founding the company, we have established Breath Biopsy as a new industry category and are confident that this funding will allow us to demonstrate the significant value that we can deliver from our market leading position in early detection and precision medicine."