Why Tencent is plowing tens of millions into American health tech start-ups

Key Points
  • Tencent is starting to invest more heavily into digital health and biotech.
  • The Chinese internet giant declined to comment on its investment strategies.
  • Part of the allure is to bring novel technologies home to address China's biggest health-care challenges.
Ma 'Pony' Huateng, chairman and chief executive officer of Tencent Holdings Ltd.
Xaume Olleros | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Silicon Valley's medical technology start-ups might have their pick of local investors, but many are now looking further afield to China.

One of the most prolific recent funders on the block is Tencent, the Shenzhen-based internet giant that is best known for its social messaging apps.

In recent years, Tencent has funded a slew of U.S. biotechnology and digital health ventures. According to data from start-up research firms Crunchbase and Rock Health, they include:

  • Grail, an ambitious venture to screen for cancer in the blood
  • Scanadu, a futuristic "medical tricorder" device that shut down in 2016
  • Karius, a genetics company that tests for infectious disease
  • Clear Labs, a food testing company
  • HomeHero, a company that brought technology to home care before it announced it was pivoting to a new (unannounced) business
  • CliniCloud, a company building a connected home medical kit
  • Circle Medical, a tech-friendly primary care provider.

The company also invests in more indirect ways.

Tencent led a $155 million round in health and artificial intelligence company iCarbonX, which subsequently secured a $100 million deal with the U.S.-based patient social networking company PatientsLikeMe. The goal for the partnership is to merge various forms of health data, like genomics and patient-reported symptoms, with AI to further our understanding of human disease.

At the time, the companies did not share whether they intended to expand PatientLikeMe's operations to China.

Tencent declined to comment on its investment strategy.

Novel solutions 

The largest Chinese internet players, Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba all have investment teams in Silicon Valley and other U.S. tech hubs.

But Tencent in particular has set its sights on health care, the U.S.' fifth-largest economy, say people familiar. The company is motivated in part by the health-care problems in China, which include a shortage of doctors and high rates of some cancers.

China is expected to have more than 800,000 lung cancer cases by 2020 on account of pollution and high smoking rates. It also has more people living with Alzheimer's disease than any other country.

"The health-care problems in China are huge," said Ted Driscoll, a Silicon Valley-based medical investor with the Chinese investment firm Decheng Capital. "They (Chinese investors) are interested in any start-ups that have a novel way of dealing with it."

Some of these U.S. companies have not yet expanded to China, but others used the investment to build a presence in the country.

One of Grail's first moves was to merge with a Chinese company called Cirina, founded by notable Chinese scientist Dennis Lo. That deal, if successful, would allow Grail to commercialize its cancer test in both Asian and Western markets.

There's also a huge interest in bringing artificial intelligence to China, with broad support from the government. AI is viewed by policymakers as a tool to replace some of the tasks typically performed by human doctors, so more people can access the treatment they need.

Walter De Brouwer, founder of Scanadu, recalls that technologies like AI were attractive to Tencent's investment team.

"How I see it is that in America, we went from paper to e-health to mobile health to AI health," he said. "In China, they have an opportunity to leapfrog straight from paper to AI."