In the last five and a half years, Rick Williams counts that he has traveled to and from China on business 17 times. The relationships he nurtured over countless meals and cups of tea are now culminating in a new company: BioGateway Partners is focused on helping U.S. companies commercialize products in China and also introducing Chinese companies to the U.S. market.

A formal announcement of the company launch is set for this week, planned to coincide with the CED Life Science Conference in Raleigh this week. But while the company is new, the business idea is not. Much of the BioGateway business model is based on work Williams did five years ago when he was chief business officer for The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences.

“We’re setting up this commercial bridge that we began with The Hamner,” Williams said.

The Hamner in 2009 announced with great fanfare a partnership with China Medical City, a research park similar to Research Triangle Park. The Hamner aimed to connect North Carolina companies to research opportunities in China while also creating a pathway for China-based companies commercialize their products in the United States. Williams and Hamner President and CEO William Greenlee made multiple trips to China to build relationships with researchers and companies there.

Gentris in China

In 2010, Williams left The Hamner to become CEO of Gentris Corp, an RTP company that provides pharmacogenomics services to life science companies. Williams said that over time, the Hamner deemphasized its China program. But Williams was able to leverage his experience and connections in China to establish a Shanghai outpost for his new company. Gentris Shanghai, launched last year, represents the company’s effort to address the growing demand for clinical research services in China.

Williams, a history buff and author of one Civil War book, left Gentris last September to work on a second Civil War book. As that work wrapped up, he shifted his attention from U.S. Civil War history to contemporary business opportunities in China. He started BioGateway as a way build on the China relationships he built first at The Hamner, and later with Gentris.

Joining Williams is Dr. Tong Zhou, formerly the senior director of China initiatives for Gentris. Zhou and Williams had also worked together at The Hamner. Zhou left Gentris in December and he and Williams have been working on BioGateway since. While Williams’ work with The Hamner and Gentris took him to China many times, BioGateway will keep him in the United States a little more. Zhou will spend most of his time based in China.

A third partner, John Uhrin, brings investment experience to BioGateway. Uhrin, who is based in Birmingham, Ala. is one of Williams’ former colleagues at Genentech and he has since worked at Credit Suisse and Harbert Venture Partners. The partners are funding BioGateway themselves.

BioGateway’s model

BioGateway’s business model is oriented around business development and company formation. BioGateway is looking to find U.S. companies with technologies and products trying to enter the China business market. BioGateway will also help U.S. companies expand into China. BioGateway will work with companies in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, medical devices, and diagnostics. Natural products is another area of focus and Williams said BioGateway has relationships in Asheville, which he calls the “national products capital of North Carolina.” An agreement with one natural products company has been signed and another natural products deal is in the works. Williams said BioGateway’s relationships in China could place those products with Sinopharm, the largest pharmaceutical company in China.

At The Hamner, the goal for its China initiatives was to serve as a liaison between government, industry and academia, Williams said. Those efforts came from a non-profit perspective. BioGateway is taking a for profit approach to the model. Depending on the company and the product, BioGateway plans to generate revenue from one or more of four streams: consulting fees; transaction fees from licensing technologies; taking equity in select companies that do business with BioGateway; or collecting a portion of revenues generated by products sold.

Another difference between the original approach of The Hamner and the tack now taken by BioGateway is scope. The Hamner had planned to nurture North Carolina’s relationships with China. Williams said that while BioGateway has many North Carolina relationships the company will work with companies based anywhere in the United States if they have an interest in doing business in China. BioGateway’s current list of prospective deals includes companies as far away as Massachusetts and Florida. Williams added that he traveled to the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco last month in part to develop new business prospects.

But Williams said he expects to find plenty of North Carolina opportunities. He notes that North Carolina has figured prominently in some recent business deals with China-based companies. Shuanghui International last year acquired Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion. And before that, Tencent Holdings paid $330 million for nearly half of Cary-based Epic Games. This business momentum between China and North Carolina was nascent when Williams took his first trip to China years ago.

“The USA/China model that we started at the non-profit side at The Hamner, we were just early,” Williams said. “It’s now moving at a much faster pace.”