June 14, 2017 / 11:10 PM / 2 months ago

Google bets on European biotech drugs, backs new fund

FILE PHOTO: A Google search page is seen through a magnifying glass in this photo illustration taken in Berlin on August 11, 2015.Pawel Kopczynski/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - Google is betting on the potential of European biotech companies to deliver life-changing drugs by investing alongside Swiss company Novartis (NOVN.S) in a new $300 million fund run by leading life sciences investment firm Medicxi.

The move shows Google casting an increasingly wide net as it pumps cash into global medical research, seeding what it believes will become a core long-term healthcare business.

Novartis and Verily, a unit of Google parent Alphabet (GOOGL.O), are cornerstone investors in the new fund, along with the European Investment Fund, Medicxi said on Thursday.

Verily already has deals with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L), Sanofi (SASY.PA), Novartis and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N) to apply novel technology in areas ranging from diabetes management to robotic surgery. Last month it landed former U.S. Food and Drug Administration head Robert Califf as part of its team.

Another Google offshoot, Calico, is working on treatments to fight ageing, while the group's arms-length GV venture capital operation has invested in dozens of healthcare start-ups, mostly in the United States.

The latest initiative will now see it delving deeper into drug development by investing in late-stage European biotech companies.

The new fund will back both private and public firms with products that have already reached mid-stage Phase II clinical development, providing them with a new source of growth capital.

"There is a funding gap because there is a maturing class of biotechnology companies now in Europe," said Francesco De Rubertis, co-founder and partner at Medicxi.

The fund is a first for Medicxi, the former life sciences arm of Index Ventures, which has so far invested in early-stage biotech.

It also reflects the redrawing of traditional industry borders as tech companies take a hands-on role in healthcare innovation, as highlighted by the fact that Verily will appoint two members to the new fund’s scientific advisory board.

Other tech companies, including Apple (AAPL.O) and Microsoft (MSFT.O), are also investing in healthcare in the belief that modern computing capabilities and miniaturization can help accelerate advances in medical treatment.

Europe boasts world-class universities and scientists, but its biotechnology sector has long been a poor relation to the bigger U.S. industry, where emerging life sciences firms are able to access a much deeper pool of capital.

By providing funds for late-stage drug development, the hope is that more firms will be able to stay independent and continue to build up the value of their experimental medicines, rather than selling out prematurely to larger players.

De Rubertis said much of the investment was likely to be channeled to companies in Britain, Switzerland and a region spanning Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam.

Europe has only a small roster of successful biotechs, such as Danish cancer specialist Genmab (GEN.CO), currently worth $13 billion, and Switzerland's Actelion.

Actelion was Europe's top biotech firm for many years, thanks to its market-leading position in pulmonary arterial hypertension, before it was bought by J&J this year for $30 billion.

Total revenues for Europe's biotech industry were $25 billion in 2015 against $108 billion for the U.S. industry, according to consultancy EY.

Editing by Greg Mahlich

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