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The transformation and future of China's biomedical innovation

CHINA is on the cusp of an innovation revolution, with the country's biomedical and healthcare sectors making great leaps in the last decade. The achievements are quite visible: the exponential growth of publication of academic articles, patent filings, international exchanges, globalisation of new drug R&D activities, and accessibility of new drug R&D technology capability platforms from both China and overseas, just to name a few.

China's basic scientific research has witnessed huge achievements. According to the latest Nature Index, China's progress in basic scientific research, particularly in the biomedical and healthcare fields, is one of the fastest in the world.

China's drug discovery and development capabilities have also improved significantly in the past decade, giving hope and new treatments to patients. Shenzhen Chipscreen Biosciences, for example, successfully launched Chidamide to the market after 14 years of hard work. Icotinib from Zhejiang Beta Pharma, a new class 1 anti-cancer drug, has also been made available to Chinese patients.

Zepatier, a new drug from the leading global pharmaceutical company MSD (known as Merck in the US and Canada), was approved by the US FDA early this year for the treatment of hepatitis C. This innovative drug was a result of a multi-year close collaboration between Merck and WuXi AppTec. These events demonstrate that the emerging Chinese biotech and pharmaceutical companies are capable of developing innovative drugs with proprietary intellectual property.

China has also made advancements in another area that has attracted the attention of the world. By virtue of the maturation of its biomedical innovation ecosystem, China was named a "future innovator" based on the comparison of the biomedical innovation ecosystems of 11 emerging countries. Over the past 15 years, biopharma R&D service companies have successfully established new drug R&D capabilities, providing new possibilities for open-source drug innovation activities to lower the costs, shorten the timeline and boost productivity for R&D.

Several key factors have been driving the great progress in China's biomedical innovation. The Chinese government's pro-innovation policies and investments have been critical. China's biomedical industry was named one of the key pillar industries of the national economy in both the "11th-five year" and "12th-five year" bio-industry development plans. The government has also made significant investments in basic research in terms of both funding and talent.

But it is too simplistic to claim that government support is the only reason China has had this innovation success. The strength of the country's scientific and technical talent is growing. Companies with Western trained senior management, entrepreneurial team, and top-notch local talent increasingly bring real capabilities to the table. The openness and value of China's new drug innovation system has also been fully demonstrated in terms of global collaborations.

It has been well recognised that China's industry can only be developed with a global perspective from the very beginning by integrating itself with the international community, and adopting global quality standards and state-of-the-art technologies. This integration has happened across the board with companies and institutions in the United States, Europe, and Asia, including many leading innovation-driven organisations in Singapore.


From "made in China" to "serving Chinese people with Chinese discoveries", and further to "serving the world with Chinese discoveries", the biomedical industry in China has come a long way. That said, the China healthcare innovation ecosystem is still at its formative stage. The gap between innovation and commercialisation is still yet to be bridged, and the potential of CFDA regulatory reforms is still yet to be realised.

The availability and affordability of novel medicines in China remain a daunting challenge. Only one third of the world's most innovative blockbuster drugs have been made available to Chinese patients, and for those drugs that eventually reached the China market, their average launch delay is six-to-eight years compared with Western launches. Some were delayed for as long as 12 years.

Despite these challenges, I'm optimistic that China's biomedical industry will soon experience a true innovation revolution, and China will evolve from exploratory innovation, to a country of innovation, and further to one where breakthrough innovation is common.

The government will play a powerful role in that evolution. We will continue to receive strong policy support from the government, as innovation has been recognised as the foundation for growth in the 13th five-year plan, which is set to continuously drive the transformation and advancement of the industry.

In addition, I believe that under the spirit of "mass entrepreneurship and innovation", which is advocated by Premier Li Keqiang, a greater number of young entrepreneurs will emerge with fresh ideas, great creativity, and the drive for innovation.

International collaboration will also remain highly important. China will continue to learn advanced concepts and technologies from its Western counterparts, and the Chinese R&D community will be able to integrate synergistically with the global community. I'm confident that China will make unique contributions to the development of the global biopharmaceutical industry by leveraging the resources in China, be it in the field of gene technology, cell therapy, mobile healthcare, or personalised medicine.

Today, I see very few places where you would find the level of energy that you find in China. There is energy around entrepreneurship, around innovation, and most importantly, the energy around possibilities. As the landscape of China's life science industry continues to evolve, we will see the global community come together more and more to help fuel innovation and create better healthcare solutions for patients.

  • Ge Li is founder, chairman & CEO; Steve Yang is EVP & COO and Hui Cai is vice-president of corporate alliances, head of PR and corporate communications of WuXi AppTec