Prospect Time’s Chief Excutive Brian Chen was particularly interested in leasing an “entire wing” in the CSIRO facility in Parkville, Melbourne.
-CSIRO has spent tens of millions of dollars upgrading its cyber security systems following a 2013 data breach linked to a Chinese national
–Imunexus is researching and developing antibodies
Multimillion-dollar offer from alleged Chinese agent for a prime spot in CSIRO
By Nick McKenzie, Paul Sakkal and Grace Tobin
November 25, 2019
A man who allegedly tried to install a Chinese agent into Federal Parliament made a multimillion-dollar offer to take control of a company based in the CSIRO’s building in Australia’s pre-eminent biotechnology hub.
*The chief executive of biotech company Imunexus, George Kopsidas, said a company called Prospect Time International Investment made a lucrative offer in the past two years to invest in his startup company, but was particularly interested in leasing an “entire wing” in the CSIRO facility in Parkville, Melbourne.
*Prospect Time’s chief executive, occasional Melbourne resident Brian Chen, is alleged to have been involved in a Chinese intelligence-backed scheme for Liberal Party member and Melbourne luxury car dealer Bo “Nick” Zhao, 32, to win a seat in Federal Parliament. Mr Zhao reported the approach to ASIO.
The Age, Herald and 60 Minutes have confirmed from multiple Western security sources that Mr Chen is a suspected senior Chinese intelligence operative, a claim Mr Chen has confirmed was put to him by Australian officials at Melbourne airport in March but which he vehemently denies.
ASIO chief Mike Burgess issued a statement on Sunday night saying his organisation “takes seriously” and was actively investigating Mr Zhao’s allegations. Mr Chen has denied knowing Mr Zhao or being involved in Chinese intelligence activities, but sources say Australian authorities have determined that Mr Chen had been in contact with Mr Zhao.
*Mr Chen and Prospect Time approached startup Imunexus in June 2017 after the company took second place in a biotechnology competition in Shenzhen, China.
*The company is researching and developing antibodies.
*Mr Kopsidas, the startup’s founder, said Mr Chen offered almost $10 million to buy a majority stake in the company, and claimed he had “hundreds of millions” in financial backing to turn Imunexus’ antibody technology into a saleable product.
“What Brian wanted to do was to start a full-on biotech company in Australia, a pharmaceutical company,” said Mr Kopsidas. “He wanted to develop products and take them into manufacturing and marketing and sales.”
*Imunexus’ laboratory and office is located in a CSIRO building in Melbourne’s biotech hub of Parkville, and Mr Kopsidas said Mr Chen was particularly interested in acquiring office space in the CSIRO facility. “He wanted to lease out an entire wing … he was talking about a significant proportion of the building,” said Mr Kopsidas.
*Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Alex Joske raised security concerns about the CSIRO sharing its premises with foreign-owned companies.*
“It’s much easier to conduct scoping work from inside the building … where you can enter sections of the CSIRO facility without authorisation,” Mr Joske said.
Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, said the proposed deal “certainly raises a lot of questions”.
Mr Chen told Mr Kopsidas his background was in aviation and real estate when they met twice at Mr Chen’s office in 101 Collins Street. Mr Kopsidas said Mr Chen had poor English skills and spoke through two translators.
Negotiations eventually broke down after Imunexus were not satisfied with the terms of the proposed deal. “The deal was very much skewed in Brian’s favour (Chen),” said Mr Kopsidas. “In the end, he just wandered off and we never heard back from him … it was really unusual to us.”
A CSIRO spokesman said the organisation was unaware of Mr Chen’s approach to Imunexus, and said it had mechanisms in place to guard against potential threats from foreign-owned organisations.
“CSIRO undertakes a legal entity check of any third party entities and performs internal approvals for any proposed occupancies to ensure that the tenancies align with CSIRO’s operations,” said the spokesman.
In recent years, the CSIRO has spent tens of millions of dollars upgrading its cyber security systems following a 2013 data breach linked to a Chinese national.
Mr Chen leads a complicated life: he has been photographed wearing a Chinese military uniform and has also posed as a journalist with global media while attending international political summits, including the G20 and APEC.
Mr Chen said in an interview he had been pictured in a Chinese military uniform because “some friends joined the army so I borrowed their uniforms to take some photos to show off”. He said he had been given journalist accreditation by a media proprietor to allow him to attend international political summits.
In early 2019, Mr Zhao told two associates that he’d revealed to ASIO how Mr Chen, whose company is also based in Melbourne, had offered to set him up in a new business with a million-dollar capital injection. In return, Mr Zhao said Mr Chen wanted him to run for a seat in Australia’s Parliament in Melbourne’s east.
In March this year, Mr Zhao was found dead in a Melbourne motel room. Local police who have prepared a brief for the coroner have been unable to conclude how he died. There is no suggestion that Mr Chen had any knowledge of or was involved in Mr Zhao’s death.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won seven Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.