Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 22 May 2019


Henny Sender in Hong Kong YESTERDAY

A beefed-up US regime for vetting investments from China has ensnared one of China’s leading health tech companies, forcing it to divest from two of the US companies it bought, according to executives and lawyers. The headwinds the Chinese company, iCarbonX, faces reveal the broadening scope of Washington’s attempts to unpick technology linkages to China — a drive that is sending a chill through Silicon Valley and China’s own booming tech sector. The Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States, a US agency that has the power to order divestments of deals already done, told iCarbonX to back out of its investments in PatientsLikeMe and HealthTell, two US healthcare companies, long after the deals closed, according to people involved. Cfius declines to comment on individual cases. The forced exits are a blow to the Chinese company, which is backed by Tencent founder Pony Ma, who valued it at $1bn from the time it was established in 2015. iCarbonX is led by Wang Jun, a leading genomicist and co-founder of the Beijing Genome Institute. Mr Wang is seeking to make his company a world leader in the field of predicting illnesses, using genetic data to help people anticipate what medical conditions they could fall victim to on the basis of genetic and lifestyle factors. One of his main initiatives was the creation of a Digital Life Alliance, in which seven companies backed by Mr Wang — most located in the US — were to work together. But that ambition has been disrupted by the forced divestments from alliance members PatientsLikeMe and HealthTell. iCarbonX had invested nearly $400m in the members of the alliance, which also includes SomaLogic, AoBiome, GALT, Imagu and Robustnique. PatientsLikeMe is a website on which almost 1m people share their experiences of achieving resilience in fighting diseases such as cancer. HealthTell helps patients know how their immune system reacts to various medical, behavioural and environmental factors. So far, at least, a third company, Colorado-based SomaLogic, which among other things measures changes in the body’s proteins, has avoided a thumbs-down from Cfius. “Our relationship with iCarbonX does not give them access to SomaLogic’s technical secrets, proteomic data or patient data,” it said. “Around the time of the iCarbonX investment, there were discussions about a potential joint venture related to putting SomaLogic’s proteomics technology in China, but SomaLogic and iCarbonX were unable to reach agreement and those discussions were terminated.” Cfius gained new powers in August under the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernisation Act, which allows the body to block Chinese investments that might give them access to US tech companies’ business information and other key data. Since then, the number of proposed Chinese acquisitions of US companies that have been blocked or withdrawn has risen sharply and, according to consultancy Rhodium Group, $20bn in divestitures are under way. “Sellers don’t want Chinese buyers,” said one Washington-based lawyer. “Since August there has been a noticeable drop-off in China work. [The government] is using national security as the pretext for other goals.” The lack of enthusiasm is not one-sided, though. “Cfius has had a chilling effect,” said Christian Davis, a specialist in Cfius matters for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a law firm in Washington. “But at the same time, Chinese policy also discourages flows to the US.”

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