November 14, 2003 | SHANGHAI, People's Republic of China — By 8 a.m., a noisy rush hour has engulfed the elevated highway sweeping through the center of Shanghai, the largest city in mainland China. Pockets of gridlock snarl the feeder streets below. Size seems to matter in China's emulation of the West: About 14,000 buildings are eight or more stories tall here. The main city streets are wide, and the airport — though a 45-minute drive from downtown — is massive.
For first-time visitors to Shanghai (like me), the effect is stunning. NYC cabbies would feel right at home, except for having to avoid squadrons of fearless bicycle riders who seem protected by an invisible shield that halts traffic at will. The occasion for my trip is the first Bio-IT World Conference in Shanghai, sponsored by the municipality's Science and Technology Commission and by International Data Group, the parent company of this magazine and an expanding portfolio of biotech magazines and conferences around the world.
The one-day conference — modest by most standards, with only 100 or so attendees — has brought together an interesting mix of local researchers, prodigal sons, and foreign IT and informatics vendors. They all see a nascent Chinese market that could grow spectacularly over the next decade. It's the proverbial chance to "do good and do well" at the same time. Shanghai could be the launchpad: It has adequate infrastructure, an entrepreneurial heritage, and, perhaps, just enough distance from Beijing's controlling orthodoxy.
What's fascinating is that many of the architects of this biotech boom will come from the ranks of Chinese nationals who went abroad for the training, spent time in industry, and are now returning to set up Chinese branches of their corporations or plant roots and develop new Chinese companies.
"China is in a critical period for reform and development," says Hongjun Yang, the executive director of the National Center for Biochip Technology (NCBT) and the Shanghai Biochip Co. (SBC). Yang spent 18 years in the United States and conducted important research on 4-D flow-through chip technology at Gene Logic (as director, DNA chip R&D) and its spin-off MetriGenix (as founder and VP R&D) before returning to China to assume his current position last April.
"I strongly felt my personal experience was important to the Chinese biotech industry," Yang says. "If I was successful in America, then I should apply my knowledge and experience to today's Chinese biotech industry. My ambition is to build the first Chinese Merck or Pfizer!"
A lofty goal, needless to say, but it will take big ambitions to get China's biotech industry off the ground. At Bio-IT World Shanghai, Yang presented an update on his research.
"[NCBT] operates commercially. Therefore, NCBT and SBC are actually the same. We only have one team. Our plan is that 11 chip products will become available, including human, rat, and mice gene-expression chips. These will be high-density chips. At the same time, we will also offer some low-density chips, such as apoptosis chips and cell cycling chips."
|Shanghai at a Glance |
Area: 6,340.5 square kilometers
Population: Approx. 8 million in the city; 16.7 million in the entire Shanghai municipality
Home of first Chinese stock market
Population density: 40,000 people per square kilometer (3x that of Tokyo, and 1.7x Paris)
Industries: Transportation, communications, bio-technology, electronic assembly, chemicals, textiles
Biotech facts (2001): Roughly 280 biotech and pharmaceutical companies; 70,000 employed; 10,000 scientists and engineers; Roche, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, and GlaxoSmithKline have manufacturing facilities
Agriculture: Rice, wheat, cotton, vegetables
Sources: www.chinadaily.com.cn; www.peopledaily.com.cn; www.asiabiotech.com.sg
Another conference speaker, Shanghai native Yike Guo, has chosen to remain living abroad but create a beachhead for his company in Shanghai. Guo is a professor of computer science at Imperial College, London, and the technical director of its Parallel Computing Center. He is also CEO of InforSense Limited, founded to commercialize data-mining technology developed at Imperial.
"We are working with the Shanghai Centre of Bioinformatics Technology, the only center in China dedicated to life science informatics," Guo says. InforSense currently has eight employees in Shanghai, and Guo says that will grow to 25 within a year.
He worries that China's insular attitude could hamper progress. "In many ways, the biotech industry in China is still an inward-oriented business and usually very academic. The most important impact of the [Bio-IT World] conference is to provide a global view of the industry to stimulate new ways of thinking. I believe the future of China's biotech industry will come from its full integration with the world's biotech sector."
This conference was a small step in promoting that integration. It enticed senior representatives from database giant Oracle and informatics pioneer LION bioscience. Other familiar names — Spotfire, SAS, and IBM, for example — were absent. Still, the global life sciences community is eager to set up shop in China, and Shanghai looks like it will be the locus. Pharma giants Roche, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, and GlaxoSmithKline all have facilities here.
Chinese nationals with close ties to the West — such as Yang and Guo — will play a key role in igniting China's biotech sector. Yang already has plans to host a "big" conference in the spring.
"I went to America in July 1985. Eighteen years living and working in America was an important practice and experience in my life," he says. "As I recall this experience, I learned sciences, technologies, business and politics from [colleagues and friends]. I grew up from a bench scientist to an executive in the biotech industry. I'll never forget that."
No doubt. China and the West are counting on it.
John Russell is executive editor of Bio·IT World.