BGI’s youth movement

Go to the profile of Juliana Chan
Mar 08, 2019
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mosaicPrior to meeting BGI Executive Director Dr. Wang Jun, I had been fascinated by the rise of BGI, the Chinese world leader in human, plant, and animal genetics research.

BGI began in 1999 as China’s representative to the International Human Genome Project, where it was responsible for 1% of the output. Since then, it has grown into a genomics powerhouse, making waves for its choice of projects, such as the BGI Cognitive Genetics Project, which is studying the genetic basis for intelligence, and its recent US$118 million acquisition of the California-based whole human genomic sequencing-technology company, Complete Genomics.

I met the 37-year-old executive director at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference (PAG) Asia that took place from March 17-19 in Singapore, and Dr. Wang explained to me how BGI was structured.

“We currently have 4,000-plus employees. BGI is divided into several parts. The first is BGI Research, which is doing a lot of academic non-profit research. Then we have BGI Tech, which is doing a lot of genomics and ‘omics services. Then we have BGI Healthcare, which is trying to deliver healthcare solutions to society. BGI Agriculture develops new breeds. We recently started a project to treat waste water to provide environmental protection. Those are the major parts,” he said.

But a pipeline of technologies would not be complete without a pipeline of talent, said Dr. Wang.

“We have spin-off companies, and we also have a college. Right now we have a joint PHD program with University of Copenhagen and the Chinese University of Hong Kong,” he said.

And BGI has certainly capitalized on this youthful trend, hiring students fresh out of college. Dr. Wang told me that the average age for a scientist at BGI is only 23, and in general the average age across the entire company is just 26.

“Well this is a new territory,” Dr. Wang said. “There is no existing talent; they all have to be trained. And the best way to train them is to recruit them from the top universities and to throw them into real projects. The ones who have more experience, you need more creative thinking from them, instead of just training them what to do.”

I asked Dr. Wang whether there were any 26-year-old project team leaders at BGI.

“Yes of course,” he laughed, “and in some cases they lead a team of over 100 people. We give them the chance to run multi-million dollar projects when they are very young. If they succeed, their confidence grows.”

It is little wonder that Dr. Wang believes in the ability of youth, having co-founded BGI at a young age.

“I co-founded BGI when I was about 22 to 23. I’m now getting old. I’m 37 now,” he joked. A good company, he said, has a combination of young and older.

“In the past, people emphasized too much about experience, but forgot about the creative parts, or the strengths of the young scientists. It is also very dangerous to also focus on the young scientists, and you lose all the competence, experience, and intelligence of the senior ones.”

The hiring model of BGI reminds me of dot.com start-ups. In a competitive and fast-paced field like genomics, having the best – and most energetic – talent on your team is the best strategy to keep hitting winners.

What do the readers of Trade Secrets think of BGI’s youthful hiring strategy? And for those of you who are hiring staff, would you let 23-year-old fresh recruits lead projects on their own?

Juliana Chan

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