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The leading role of Chinese ‘sea turtles’ play in China’s biotech

Chinese sea turtles, biotech sector in China

When Samantha Du returned to her native China in 2001 with a mission to build a pharmaceuticals company, the move seemed like a terrible mistake. She had left behind a comfortable life in the US where she spent the previous 12 years, first as an academic scientist and later in roles of rising seniority at Pfizer. Back in China, she felt like an alien in her own country as she tried to start her venture.


Several times she came close to quitting but was dissuaded by business partners. Fifteen years later, her persistence appears to be working. As, first, chief scientific officer of Hutchison China MediTech and now chief executive of Zai Lab, she is prominent among a wave of biotech entrepreneurs aiming to modernise China's pharma industry and make the country a force in drug development.


Most of them are "sea turtles" (the name given to Chinese professionals trained in the west who have returned home armed with qualifications and experience). All nine of Zai Lab's top management studied at US universities. They have been drawn home by rapidly improving opportunities in China's life science sector as Beijing pumps resources into its quest for a more innovative, high-value economy.


"We want to be the first Chinese biotech company with global standing," says Ms Du. She is hardly alone in that ambition. BeiGene, a company founded by Xiaodong Wang, former professor of biomedical science at the University of Texas, last month raised $158m on Nasdaq to accelerate development of four promising cancer drugs.


Perhaps the most successful "sea turtle" in China's life science sector is Ge Li, who earned his doctorate at Columbia University and became a biotech entrepreneur in the US before returning home to found WuXi AppTec 15 years ago. The company has since become the biggest Chinese contract research organisation, performing R&D and manufacturing for many of the world's biggest pharma groups. About 5 per cent of WuXi AppTec's 10,000-strong workforce was trained overseas.


While returnees are leading the development of China's biotech sector, they are increasingly drawing from an expanding local talent pool to build their businesses. China overtook the US in 2008 as the world's biggest producer of PhDs, and the number has continued to grow rapidly.


With soaring numbers of scientists, rising investment in R&D and growing demand for medicines from an ageing population, China has all the ingredients for growth in its biotech sector. Ms Du and others like her are aiming to replicate the success of US companies such as Genentech and Amgen.



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