Our article, 'Innovation' Nation, examines the state of true innovation in the Chinese biotech sector. It is the product of more than a year's worth of reading, travel and interviews, and benefited from input by our entire editorial team.
I spent the better part of a day interviewing at Beigene, in Beijing, China, to get a sense of the company's leadership and its history. Lai Wang is the senior vice president, head of China development at Beigene. Like almost everyone else I spoke to at the top of China’s life science sector, he has ties to the West: he earned his PhD from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. When he left China for graduate school, his country was a global manufacturing powerhouse, and Wang saw proof of this even in his new life in Texas. Because he was a “poor graduate student," he said, he did most of his shopping at Wal-Mart, and in 1997, it seemed everything in the wide aisles of American’s fast-growing retailer was made in China.
But that changed. By 2010, he said, many of those products were “being made in Vietnam, in the Philippines, maybe Africa.” China had moved up the global manufacturing food chain and many lower-end products were being made by other countries. "It's because the labor costs in China went up," Wang said. "And so China needed a new economy. That part is pretty clear."
That new economy, the Chinese governments hopes, will be built on innovation. Yes, the country is also banking on trade, with its massive Belt & Road initiative, but China knows the future will be shaped more by new discoveries and new technologies, rather than labor or manufacturing.
The problem for China is that the Cultural Revolution left the country far behind Western scientific leaders, and China lacked the resources, cutting-edge equipment and, in some cases, even the updated textbooks it needed to compete. This was doubly true in the life sciences.
Yanyi Huang is a professor in the college of engineering at Peking University in Beijing. He received both his undergraduate and PhD degrees there, then did a post-doc at Stanford in Stephen Quake’s lab, before Peking University recruited him home. He smiles easily, wears glasses, and his office has books and papers atop every free surface, excepting the armchair he occasionally sits in to rest.
He gave me an analogy to explain how China has worked to gain ground. He said that during the Mao years, there was no funding for basic research, and thus Chinese professors mostly didn’t know how to do it. When the government began providing funding, researchers all over the country turned their attention to the rest of the world to see how it was done.
“When you start to learn, you open your mind,” Huang said. “So now you’re sitting in the same stadium as the other researchers, you’re watching people racing. And you want to give it a try.”
The problem, Huang said, is that Chinese academics quickly saw that their “gears were different” from the researchers already out there racing. That issue was solved by money – new instruments, computers, reagents – but then Chinese researchers realized it's about more than equipment. You also have to be trained, Huang said. And that is harder, and takes more time.
This progression has played out in China over the past decade. "I think it's very natural," Huang said. "It just happened that our evolution has been squeezed into a very short time period. This happened in other places over the last century, but we're squeezing it into say, 15-20 years."
Indeed, China has moved at an incredible pace. 'Innovation' Nation PDF can be found here.