Helio Genomics Chief Executive Justin Chen Li hit a “quarter-life crisis” after years of working in finance.
“I’ve always wanted to make more of an impact than just being in finance,” he told the Business Journal.
“I thought, ‘maybe I should go back to school and become a doctor, or maybe I should do something more on the creator side.”
Instead, he realized “I can make an impact as an innovator [in healthcare] from a business standpoint. Because, in healthcare, there’s so many things wrong with [the field] and our systems.”
Li is a founding member of Helio, an Irvine-based cancer diagnostics firm that’s one of the better-funded medtech companies in Orange County. He oversaw the company’s soft launch of its first product, HelioLiver, via a commercial partnership with $1.3 billion-valued Fulgent Genetics Inc. (Nasdaq: FLGT), led acquisitions that increased the company’s lab space, and closed an oversubscribed $35 million Series B1 funding round led by Fulgent.
Li was recognized for his achievements on Sept. 8 at the Business Journal’s eighth annual Innovator of the Year Awards at the Irvine Marriott.
Inaugural Product Launch
Helio Genomics, formerly known as Helio Health, was founded under the Laboratory for Advanced Medicine Inc. name. The company is one of the earliest pioneers to use technology that analyzes methylation, or gene regulators, for cancer detection, according to Helio officials. The firm is also the only company with a test for liver cancer, Li said.
Helio last December launched HelioLiver, a laboratory developed test that detects early-stage liver cancers at a higher rate than traditional detection methods. Detecting liver cancer in the early stages reportedly increases a patient’s five-year survival rate by 13 times.
In developing its inaugural product, the company partnered with Fujifilm Medical Systems USA Inc. and worked with Temple City-based genetics firm Fulgent for HelioLiver’s commercialization.
HelioLiver is CLIA-certified and CAP-accredited, but has yet to receive FDA approval. The company will be submitting the results of its flagship clinical trial, a three-and-a half-year study done with thousands of patients, to the FDA in the first half of next year.
The product is the first in a long line of early-stage cancer tests Helio is looking to commercialize. The company aims to develop AI-enabled blood tests to identify early stages across a large number of cancer types, company officials said.
Cancer, Li said, is “one of the biggest health problems that have afflicted mankind throughout history [and] we have completely eluded our ability to solve it.”
The company is currently developing tests for colon and lung cancer, which Li’s grandfather died from.
“That was very visceral for me,” he said of his grandfather’s death. “It’s something that motivates me to work on this.”
Li grew up aspiring to be an inventor.
“I wanted to be like Thomas Edison. He was my role model.”
However, he faced pressure to go into business from his father, Shu Li, a semiconductor exec.
Li moved from Phoenix to Laguna Beach when he was 10 years old, after his father was tapped in 2002 to establish chip maker Jazz Semiconductor, an offshoot of Newport Beach semiconductor firm Conexant Systems Inc.
Jazz in 2008 merged with Israel-based chip maker Tower Semiconductor Ltd. (Nasdaq: TSEM). Li’s father ran Jazz until 2007, when he was replaced by longtime tech exec and one-time Apple Inc. CEO Gil Amelio, who oversaw a short-lived stint for Jazz as a publicly traded, OC-based company.
The younger Li graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in finance. He later earned an MBA in healthcare from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
He held roles in Chinese biotech company Cellular Biomedicine Group Inc. and petroleum refining company Phillips 66 Co. as a financial analyst and worked his way up from a consultant to consulting manager at FactSet Research Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: FDS). At FactSet, he led the development of the company’s Los Angeles team to support the area’s largest pension funds, hedge funds and investment banks.
Li’s quarter-life crisis left him considering pivoting careers to become a doctor. Rather than going to medical school, he eventually decided to utilize his business acumen to help establish Helio and fulfill his lifelong dream of making a greater impact by changing the healthcare landscape.
“Scientists and doctors don’t necessarily make great managers,” he said. “It’s really helpful to have some business experience and understanding of culture—how to incentivize and motivate people and inspire them.”
Li became Helio’s CEO in June last year. He previously served as the company’s VP, finance and business development and general manager.
During his term as VP, Li scaled Helio Genomics’ laboratory space and testing capacity by leading the company’s acquisitions of West Lafayette, Ind.-based biotech company MorNuCo Inc. and fellow diagnostics firm EliteHealth.
The MorNuCo deal added a 12,000-square-foot lab in Indiana to Helio’s real estate portfolio, while the EliteHealth transaction provided the company labs in China for commercialization in Asia.
Helio’s Irvine headquarters runs 10,000 square feet near the San Diego (5) Freeway on Lake Forest Drive. It counts about 150 employees across the globe, with 35 in the U.S.
Helio has raised a total of $151 million to date.
It’s looking to close another funding round north of $30 million in the next five months, Li said. The money will help accelerate the company’s operations, particularly on the commercialization side.
Li said the company is hoping to ramp up with a larger staff and space as it outgrows its current offices.
“Our current team is phenomenal. They do much more than the number of people we have, [so] we need to expand.”
An IPO for Helio is a possibility after it completes a final funding round, Li told the Business Journal in an interview in February.
“We’re in a good capital position, however we are looking for a bigger investment to accelerate the company,” he said.