Biotech booms in China

Timing can make a big difference in a career. Is it worthwhile to stay longer in a comfortable job or is it the right moment to strike out for a new challenge? Similarly, timing can make all the difference when deciding to enter a developing market like China.

Just a decade ago, when China-born scientists with overseas experience began returning to the country, lured by their homeland’s fast growth and growing financial means, they found a drug industry dominated by generics. Undeterred, they got busy building the infrastructure for an industry capable of drug discovery and development, buoyed by substantial government support and a thriving economy.

Today, biotech specialists arriving in China find an industry at a turning point, with many key elements in place for innovation: a university system churning out doctorates and strong basic research, substantial financial backing from both the private and public sectors, regulations that are becoming globally harmonized and a vibrant group of entrepreneurial leaders with ambitions for China and abroad.

They also find a country facing significant unmet medical needs — particularly in cancer, neurology and diabetes — and a rapidly ageing population. Although China is the world’s second largest pharmaceutical market after the United States, some of the most effective modern medicines are not on sale. For example, of the 42 cancer drugs approved globally in the past five years, only four are available in China. But this is set to change. Recent regulatory changes will bring imported drugs to China more quickly, and local biotechs are racing to develop domestic — and, they hope, global — blockbuster drugs. For academics and entrepreneurs, it is an ideal time to build on the biotech investments of the past, says Lan Huang, chief executive of New York-based BeyondSpring Pharmaceuticals, which is running drug trials in China.

A hunger for science

It only took two visits to Shanghai’s Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park to convince Greg Scott to set up a life-science consulting business there, amid a hotbed of drug research and development (R&D) companies. He founded ChinaBio in 2007, and encourages others to consider a move to China. “Do it! It is a great experience,” he says. “If I was helping someone plan their career, China has to be a part of it as the number one drug market outside the United States.”

It is not just entrepreneurs and multinational drug company employees; many academic and staff scientists also find working in China a stimulating career move. Ray Stevens, a chemist renowned for determining the crystal structures of the body’s receptors, which are important for identifying drug targets, can recall the exact moment he decided to trade sunny California for Shanghai, uprooting his school-age children and wife. Like many academics, he had visited China several times, but it was not until 2009, after delivering a talk on membrane proteins to colleagues in the neighbouring city of Suzhou, that he decided to make the move.

“One of the big attractions was the energy and excitement the students had for science. It won me over,” Stevens says. After he had finished his talk, “a group of students came up to the podium to ask questions. They kept asking questions as I made my way to the bathroom and even followed me in. I was amazed; they were so hungry. It was the moment I decided to spend my sabbatical in China”.

In 2011, Stevens moved to China as a visiting professor. Just a year later, the president of ShanghaiTech University, Mianheng Jiang, came calling, offering the chance to set up his own institute. He now runs the iHuman Institute at ShanghaiTech, is a member of China’s Thousand Talents Plan and was in 2017 awarded a Magnolia Prize, an accolade given to foreigners who have contributed significantly to Shanghai’s development. He has also co-founded a biotech company, RuiYi, in Shanghai.

Building biotech

The passion for science that Stevens discovered did not spring up accidentally. It has been fostered by government support for biotechnology that has intensified over the past decade, creating a force attracting scientists and the entrepreneurially inclined to China. Of the 2 million returnees to China over the past 6 years, it is estimated 250,000 work in the life sciences. And, although many scientists making the move were born and raised in China and have a decade or more experience working in the West, non-Chinese speakers such as Stevens and Scott are coming and thriving here, too.

The push for innovation comes from the highest levels of government, with the biotech industry receiving special attention in not just one but three of the government’s latest five-year plans: the strategic blueprints that determine the country’s economic goals for the forthcoming half-decade. The latest plan, China’s thirteenth, stipulates that the biotechnology sector should exceed 4% of gross domestic product by 2020 and that there should be 10 to 20 life-science parks for biomedicine with an output surpassing 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion). China has more than 100 life-science parks dotted across the country; run by local governments, these hubs lure companies with tax breaks and subsidies. It is estimated that more than $100 billion has already been invested in the life-sciences sector by state, provincial or local governments in an effort to hit the five-year-plan targets.

The Thousand Talents Plan has been especially successful at recruiting life-science talent. “Since 2008, 7,000 returnees have been recruited across all disciplines,” says Dan Zhang, former secretary-general of the Thousand Talents programme and chief executive of Fountain Medical Development in Beijing, which helps companies to carry out clinical trials. “The life sciences committee for biotech is one of the largest groups in the programme. We’ve recruited more than 1,400 people, from both science and industry — including company founders, chief scientific officers or leading academics.”

Returnees, especially those recruited via the Thousand Talents Plan, have had a “huge impact” on the industry, says Zhang. He says that returnees are the force behind the majority of drug approvals in China, that they fill peer review committees and life-science faculties, and that many are made university deans of schools of pharmacy and medicine. Sheng Ding, for example, has split his time between a biomedical-research facility in California and Tsinghua University in Beijing as dean of the school of pharmaceutical sciences since 2015. The generous grants and prestige of a place on the Thousand Talents Plan or similar programmes can increase an applicant’s attractiveness to employers and enable them to command higher salaries.

Deep pockets

Since the global financial crisis, financing for biotechs in China has been on the rise, whereas the sector has taken a hit in the West. Chinese investors who are looking to diversify their portfolios away from property and manufacturing are encouraged by the growth prospects of the life sciences, given China’s unmet medical needs and ageing population. Chinese venture capital and private equity funds raised $45 billion for investment in the life sciences in the two and half years prior to June 2017, according to ChinaBio. So far, only $12 billion has been invested in the industry, with financiers on the hunt for good companies to invest in. Most of the cash is going towards financing innovative biotechs that are, in turn, hiring at a rapid pace (see ‘Three years’).

-Written by Shannon Ellis in Nature.  See original article link here.