As managing partner of Qiming Venture Partners, Nisa Leung has invested in over 30 of China’s healthcare giants. Underlying her prolific track record is her goal to solve as many incurable diseases as possible.
With a container resembling a tall coffee cup, Nisa Leung didn’t inject her Covid-19 booster shot – she inhaled it. The investor became an early patient for the world’s first gaseous Covid-19 vaccine, unveiled last September by Shanghai-based CanSino Biologics, one of her portfolio companies.
“Who knows whether or not there’s going to be other types of Covid coming out?” says Leung, managing partner of Qiming Venture Partners, in an interview on the sidelines of the Forbes Global CEO conference. Leung backed CanSino in 2015, shortly after the biopharmaceutical company built its first vaccine manufacturing facility. What attracted her was the company’s development of meningococcal meningitis vaccines for children, which at the time were unavailable in China. Since then, CanSino has become one of the country’s largest biotechs, with a market capitalization of $3.8 billion.
Leung’s intrepidness and eye for healthcare innovation are likely instrumental to her success. Featured on this year’s Forbes 50 Over 50 list, Leung, 52, is a regular on the Forbes Midas List of the world’s best investors. In 2022, she was ranked the second-highest female investor in China after Anna Fang, partner and CEO of ZhenFund. Aside from CanSino, her portfolio includes China’s largest insulin maker Gan and Lee and pharmaceutical giant Wuxi Biologics, cofounded and chaired by billionaire Li Ge.
Founded in 2006 and based in Beijing, Qiming Venture Partners was an early backer of tech giants such as billionaire Wang Xing’s Meituan and billionaire Lei Jun’s Xiaomi. The investment firm has raised a total of $9.4 billion in capital across 11 funds, with a particular focus on the consumer tech and healthcare industries; since 2020, Qiming’s 480 portfolio companies have spanned 34 IPOs, 25 of which are in healthcare.
Last December, Chinese authorities announced the relaxation of strict Covid-19 control measures in cities across China, spurring market rallies as investors bet the world’s second-largest economy would finally reopen to the rest of the world. Dealmaking in China plummeted by 45% in 2020, the lowest level since 2008, according to Refinitiv data.
“I do think that China has a very unique position to play for the global value chain,” says Leung. She remains “very optimistic” in the short and medium-term future of healthcare investment in China, although she says the sector was oversubscribed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Her confidence is inspired by the resilience of the founders she’s worked with. During the citywide lockdown of Shanghai in 2020, several of Qiming’s portfolio companies worked in the office for 2-3 months, she says. Forbidden from exiting the building, they soldiered on. In lieu of showers, some employees set up regimens for wiping themselves in bathrooms.
“It’s really that perseverance, which I think is so important,” she says. Adapting to the severe “hardships” of lockdown required teams to have tremendous faith, accepting low or nonexistent salaries until they could resume their normal schedules. “That’s why I always say ‘do not bet against Chinese entrepreneurs, because they work really, really hard,’” she adds.
Raised in Hong Kong, Leung graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in management and from the Stanford Graduate School of Business with an MBA. The managing partner cites her uncle’s battle with liver cancer as the start of her journey into healthcare investment. As her family sought treatment for the uncle in Guangzhou, Leung came to see the shortcomings of China’s therapeutics.
“Whenever I see patients with liver cancer publicly begging for a liver on social media, I always feel pity,” Leung wrote in a 2019 blog post for Qiming. “If the resection [of a liver tumor] can be conducted early, the survival rate of patients is quite high; however, liver cancer is still the third largest cancer killer in Hong Kong.”
Since then, Leung has overseen investment in China’s healthcare scene, introducing U.S.-based companies into the domestic market while nurturing homegrown talent. She’s tapped into burgeoning fields such as AI-powered drug discovery, which uses advanced algorithms to predict the movement of molecules and find those that work for specific diseases. One of her notable investments at Qiming is Schrödinger, which builds AI simulation software that helps scientists discover effective compounds.
“Pretty much the entire investment committee was against it,” says Leung. “But I said, ‘okay, I feel this is the right direction to invest, and if this investment goes well, then Qiming makes the return. If not, then I’ll take it out of my own money.’” Her bet in 2019 paid off, as the year after, Schrödinger debuted on the Nasdaq with a $220 million public offering, exceeding its initial pricing.
Another investment is Zai Lab, a biopharmaceutical giant with a market capitalization of $4.1 billion. “Nobody was really paying attention” to drug discovery in 2o14, and in the case of Zai Lab’s small, three-woman team, there were questions about the operation’s future viability. To Leung, assessing small teams came down to “a lot of gut feeling” and calculations on filling in gaps. Zai Lab debuted on Nasdaq in 2017, and it completed a secondary listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 2020.
“I always say, ‘do not bet against Chinese entrepreneurs, because they work really, really hard.’”
Now entering her 17th year at Qiming, Leung stands out as a leading female investor in China. Moreover, approximately 37% of Qiming’s healthcare portfolio has either female founders or female C-suite executives, which Leung credits to the firm’s talent search. “We don’t really try to identify specifically women entrepreneurs,” she says. “We always try to look for the best.” On the whole, she argues that China’s opportunities for women in the healthcare space are more expansive: “I spent quite some time in Silicon Valley. I must say that I would not go as far as I could if I had stayed there.”
Illnesses that exclusively impact women are critically overlooked, Leung says, making them fertile ground for research. Few companies take aim at conditions such as fibroids, which are benign tumors that appear around the uterus, and endometriosis, an illness in which tissue growth impacts female reproductive organs. The lack of treatment belies the diseases’ scopes: fibroids affect up to 77% of reproductive-age women globally, while endometriosis affects 10%, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Global Burden of Disease Study.
“We want to be able to find solutions in lots of different areas that we don’t have a cure right now,” Leung says. In 2021, Qiming jointly led the $56 million Series B funding round of HopeMed, a biotech company that addresses endometriosis and other disorders caused by faulty hormone receptors, including baldness in men and women. For lung tissue conditions, Qiming has also backed Hong Kong-based AI drug discovery platform Insilico Medicine, which announced positive results for its initial trials of an AI-discovered drug to treat lung disease.
Other conditions that are idiopathic, or with no known cause, are up next. Leung forecasts healthcare startups will take on “new modalities,” examining areas such as neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In turn, the tools available to researchers will evolve. For instance, advancements in the technique of liquid biopsy, a form of detecting cancerous tumors without operations, could make cancer a “chronic disease” instead of a terminal one.
“If we can even help a little bit by extending the average age of the world by five years, that would be great,” she says. “There’s just so much that we can still do, because there are so many diseases that need to be cured.”