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Hong Kong attracts IPO of biotech firm backed by Bezos, Gates

[HONG KONG] Grail Inc, a cancer detection firm backed by the world's two richest men, is planning a Hong Kong initial public offering in a win for the city's attempts to draw biotech listings, people familiar with the matter said.

The Menlo Park, California-based firm is working with advisers on the proposed share sale, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the information is private. Grail may seek to raise as much as US$500 million this year, though a final offering amount has not been decided, one of the people said. The company's investors include Bill Gates and the personal venture fund of Inc founder Jeff Bezos, according to its website.

Grail could become one of the first companies to benefit from proposed new listing rules aimed at attracting early stage biotechnology firms to the Hong Kong bourse. Fosun Group-backed Shanghai Henlius Biotech Inc is also planning a listing that could take advantage of the proposal, people familiar with the matter said earlier.

A spokeswoman for Grail declined to comment.  Grail's backers include Tencent Holdings Ltd, China's biggest Internet company, as well as Bristol-Myers Squibb Co, Celgene Corp, Johnson & Johnson Innovation and Merck & Co. It said in December that its first product, a screening test for a type of cancer located near the upper throat and behind the nasal cavity, would be launched in 2018.  The company, which was formed by US-listed genetic sequencing firm Illumina Inc, announced in March the first close of its Series B financing at more than US$900 million. Two months later, it agreed to merge with Cirina Ltd, a biotech company co-founded by Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Dennis Lo.

Grail's goal is to create a "pan-cancer" screening test that can diagnose people at a very early stage even when they have no symptoms, Illumina Chief Executive Officer Jay Flatley said in 2016.

As the startup's name implies, such a test is a much-sought and elusive goal for the industry. Using a blood sample to screen for cancer is an increasingly popular idea because drawing blood is far cheaper and less invasive than a traditional biopsy. The challenges to creating such a test are daunting because the technology is new, and companies will have to prove that they can catch cancer cells as accurately as traditional methods if they hope to upend standard procedures.