Biomedical sector: boom as China’s top scientists set out to cure world’s ills
Biomedicine is one of the fastest-growing fields in China. Its success has triggered the return from abroad of talented graduates who are flocking home to take up positions with dynamic companies based in the biomedicine sector of Beijing ETOWN.
In an interview on China’s national TV network, CCTV, broadcast in January 2015, a biomedicine graduate explained why she had decided to come home to China to work after studying biomedicine at a top US university.
Li Xiang said she found during her studies that her field of molecular biology in the US was advanced but was rarely practically applied to daily life. “I wanted to bring what I learned back to China to make products with it and finally change people’s lives with it,” she said.
Seven years after returning as a 26-year-old graduate, the TV station reported, Li has successfully established her own company, which designed a virus detection system for one of the most disturbing diseases of modern times, Ebola.
The testing system was taken to West Africa and was China’s first hi-tech product to be recommended by the World Health Organization. Li’s company was now working on more portable testing systems to use in Ebola-hit areas.
Li is one of many bright graduates who study in Europe and the US and who are increasingly heading home to China to work as the country becomes an increasingly sophisticated base for biomedicine.
The return of highly skilled young graduates has helped create productive and innovative zones such as the biomedical area in Beijing ETOWN, where the sector has seen an explosion of world-beating creativity and innovation in recent years.
The cluster of world-class biomedicine companies in Beijing ETOWN has pioneering new treatments and drugs and, with its high-end industrial facilities and leading role in research and development, can be seen as Beijing’s Medicine Valley.
Companies in the zone have already accumulated an impressive list of ground-breaking achievements, such as the creation of the world’s largest reorganized Protein Data Bank, the first medical linear accelerators creating high-energy beams to destroy tumours, the first genetic screening chip for the clinical diagnoses of deafness, and China’s first completely humanized antibodies.
From a manufacturing base, China’s biomedical sector has in the past decade been transformed into an innovation hub through the investment of billions of dollars of government money and the setting up of innovation zones such as Beijing ETOWN.
Biomedicine was identified as one of the fields the Chinese government wanted to focus on in its 12th Five-Year Plan and international surveys suggest that China is rapidly overtaking the US and Japan in terms of investment in the field.
A drug innovation programme was launched by the Chinese government in 2009, leading to the creation of thousands of patents and a number of new products. China now says it wants to discover 100 new drugs by 2020 as part of its drive to boost the biomedicine sector.
The commitment of officials to nurture and develop the sector is evident at Beijing ETOWN, where one of the earliest home-grown companies to arrive in the specially created zone was Sino Biological Inc, a company specializing in protein and antibody production and quality reagents.
Explaining why the company chose Beijing ETOWN, a spokesman says: “We did have a number of choices and offers from other areas, but we finally decided to found our company in ETOWN because of the environment, the ETOWN leadership and the working personnel of the government.
“Since we arrived in ETOWN, we have enjoyed excellent service from the government's staff and have been given a great deal of support in matters such as staffing and human resource management, research grants and intellectual property guidance. ETOWN has played an important role in our company’s growth.”
Eight years after setting up in ETOWN, Sino Biological has more than 300 employees, most of them technical personnel. Nearly half of them not only work in ETOWN but live there too, the spokesman says.
In a fiercely competitive field, Sino Biological uses cutting-edge technology to produce the highest-quality proteins and antibodies at high speed and low cost, its spokesperson says, allowing it to offer superior-quality biological reagents at a bigger discount than competitors.
“We can produce up to 100mg monoclonal antibody in four to five weeks after receiving the antibody gene sequence information and we can carry out this type of antibody production project at a very high throughput, meaning we can produce hundreds of antibodies per month,” he says.
“This type of capability and capacity allows our customers – some of them among the top-10 pharmaceutical companies – to accelerate their antibody discovery and development programmes.”
“The ETOWN government promotes communication and collaboration among the biomedical companies within ETOWN as well as companies from other parts of China. The government here even provides financial support for various alliances to organize activities and meetings”
Hiring the best technicians available is vital to the success of a biomedical company and that process was helped by a considerable improvement in the living environment for scientists who choose to take an apartment close to their work laboratory in ETOWN.
“The local government in ETOWN has built many grocery stores, department stores, restaurants, schools, clinics and hospitals – things that a good living community requires,” the spokesman says.
“Also, ETOWN provides a number of large recreation parks, entertainment facilities, sports facilities and commuter services. It has grown into a popular and comfortable living community.”
It is a community where scientific collaboration and socializing between different groups of employees is enthusiastically encouraged. “There are a number of alliances covering different industries,” the spokesman for Sino Biological says.
“The ETOWN government promotes communication and collaboration among the biomedical companies within ETOWN as well as companies from other parts of China. The government here even provides financial support for various alliances to organize activities and meetings.”
By providing a warm welcome for scientists and giving them an environment where they can share ideas and concentrate on their life-transforming research, more and more top graduates are likely to be lured home from overseas to innovation centres like ETOWN.
“With so many top scientists and entrepreneurs coming back to China from studying and working abroad, there is no doubt that the biomedicine industry in China is entering the fast lane in the decade ahead,” the spokesman says.
“Innovation is the key to future success, and we believe China will play an even bigger role in biomedicine in future.”