SIUOxford: Biotech Booms in China - Innovation, Intellectual Property and Investment (Part I)

Author: Emil Fristed Edited by: Ruth Sang Jones

Biotech is a global business driven by access to global talent, availability of capital / venture capital (VC) funding, global competition and bigger external markets. In a two-part event, students and researchers from all walks of science gathered with the Science Innovation Union to explore the role of collaboration between the UK and China in the current biotech ecosystem.

In Part I, the compatibility between China and the UK for research and innovation was highlighted and case studies were presented to show successful stories of startups that utilized resources in both countries. Also read our article on Part II, which introduces new avenues for research outsourcing and collaborative research initiatives with China founded by the Univeristy of Oxford.

Sunan Jiang

Sunan Jiang - the Minister Counsellor for Science and Technology in the Chinese Embassy in the UK - framed the night by laying out why China and the UK are a particularly good match in science and technology (S&T). The history of UK-China S&T collaboration goes back to 1978, when the formal UK-China Science and Technology Agreement was signed. This was recently followed up by the China-UK joint strategy for science, technology and innovation cooperation. This initiative includes setting up the UK-China Joint Innovation Fund, implementing a Flagship Challenge Programme, and promoting mutual access to research, e.g. open access to data. Fancy words aside, the purpose of the initiative is to deepen S&T cooperation between the UK and China. But why is the UK and China a strong match today?

From the UK’s perspective, China is attractive because of high economic growth and good investment opportunities in science and technology. Even though the public knowledge intensive services are not well etablished in China (yet), industry and venture capital funds are blazing. Another reason is the recent boom in tertiary level education in China that has been especially vivid for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects. In 2013, 40% of Chinese graduates finished a degree within a STEM subject, and China is now the country producing the most STEM graduates every year. So while access to capital is probably the most important reason now, access to the STEM talent pool might become the dominating incentive in the future for the UK to set up S&T collaborations with China. 

From China’s perspective, the distribution of subject fields in science is very skewed. Many get a degree within engineering, energy, materials sciences, computer science, or chemical engineering. But very few get a degree within psychology, arts and humanities, social sciences, neuroscience, medicine, agricultural and biological sciences. Conversely, the UK has a much more balanced distribution. China also hopes to learn from the UK in research practices; the UK is very strong in research, which boasts high quality but especially high efficiency. They are rated best in the world per researcher, and best in the world per dollar spent.

One specific example Sunan Jiang gave regarding a S&T industry that has benefitted from a UK-China collaboration was the field of nuclear power. China is currently looking to scale up nuclear power in the energy sector, and the UK has been really accomplished in managing the supply chain for this.

Following Sunan’s talk, Dr Wenming Ji and Dr Shisong Jiang gave each a specific example of a research based company involving China-UK collaboration.

Dr Wenming Ji

Dr Wenming Ji is the managing director at the Oxford Cardiomox Ltd. (OCL). He was a former senior consultant at Isis Innovation (now OSI), where he got involved with OCL - the company he eventually ended up leading.

OCL is developing a new way to do non-invasive heart imaging. The pumping of the heart is driven by electric discharge in specific cells called ‘pace-maker cells’ (because they determine the pace of the hearts beating). This electric activity then propagates through the heart, leading to contraction. Many might know the ‘electrocardiogram’ (ECG), the classic test for heart rhythm and electrical activity. This test uses electrodes placed on the skin to record the electrical activity of the heart, which has been the traditional approach. But, as discovered by Faraday, an electrical current produces a magnetic field, which can be measured. OCL is based on an Ukrainian idea of ‘magnetic cardiography’. The technique uses supercoils to measure the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the heart. From the ‘magnetic maps’ collected by the machine, computer models of the heart can be generated, which are unique for every single patient. As Dr Ji explains,“Our device directly measures the function of the cardiac cells and can give more information for diagnosis and analysis [compared to ECG]." The upside compared to some older approaches is a finer granularity of imaging, and richer data. But they come with a cost, as the individual imaging machines are expensive. Convincing health care services - who already have older, but functioning technologies for similar purposes - to adopt this new modality of imaging will require showing clear benefits for patients. Dr Wenming Ji is convinced that this will be possible.

OCL was initially funded by a private investor from China (an Oxford engineer graduate), and consequently received funding from OUI (Oxford University Innovation).

Dr Ji ended on two pieces of advice, based on his own experience:

1)     Even if you don’t have your own idea or project, you can still work in innovation and start-up. Find an inventor or an existing early stage start-up, and work with them.

2)     IP (intellectual property) protection is crucial if you want to make a start-up based on your great idea. Setting aside some time to learn about IP is a great investment.

Dr Shisong Jiang

Dr Jiang began with his personal story. Having worked with infectious diseases in a military hospital, he moved to the the UK with 100 dollars in his pocket. He eventually became a research group leader in 2004, and is now working as a group leader in the department of Oncology at the University of Oxford. He’s also the CTO of Oxford Vacmedix, an oncology startup, based on his own research.

Some background of Vacmedix: It has been know for a long time that some antibodies can transfer from one person to another. This led researchers to ask whether immunised T-cells (a vital part of the immune system) could also be transferred. This turned out not to be the case because of a phenomena called MHC-restriction. How then can we develop a universal vaccine against T-cells (“T-cell vaccine”)? Dr Jiang found a peptide that worked well in many strains - and filed a patent! But it didn’t work in all strains. He later figured out that a mix of about two handfuls of peptides with overlapping sequences (‘overlapping peptides’ / ‘OPs’) worked in most strains. OPs have practical problems. Each separate peptide needs to be filed in the regulatory processes as a single drug, and they need to have separate QA processes for each peptide. To tackle this problem Vacmedix uses a technology whereby the individual, overlapping peptides are linked with enzymatic sequences. Once the combined peptide enters into the human body, enzymes can chop it up into the overlapping peptides.

During his talk Dr Jiang used his own experience as a case study to provide more general advice. At the early stages of his research on overlapping peptides, no one believed in the idea. Now there are 10 clinical trials on overlapping peptides. He strongly urges, “As an inventor you are solely responsible for promoting your idea.” As for patents, always take them. A note is due here: If you intend to potentially commercialise an idea you have developed in science, publishing your results before you have taken a patent can prevent you from taking the patent. Publishing includes, but is not limited to, the following media: papers, posters, conference talks and telling your colleagues or the public about the idea. Intellectual property is a mutual agreement between an inventor and the state that the inventor discloses his/her invention to the general public, in exchange for a monopoly. If you have already disclosed your invention, there are obvious problems to striking this kind of deal.

Once Dr Jiang had shown the potential of OPs, he had a choice: Publish, or go to the Oxford University Innovation (OUI) instead, and try to commercialise.  He decided the latter. Two important points were made from this. First, as we saw for intellectual property, sometimes you need to make a decision between academic recognition vs. developing your idea commercially. Publishing is one avenue to show your merit, but Dr Jiang wanted to help patients in a more direct way. Second, the university helped significanty. It is often debated whether you should give your invention to the university, and whether it is fair that they take a stake, say 50 %. He says yes. In the case of Vacmedix, OUI spent a lot of time and work to help the inventor, even helping to recruit a suitable management team. A benefit of this is the inventor will be able to attach the ‘Oxford University’ brand to the startup, which can make it easier to raise capital, especially in China. According to Dr Jiang,  the brand is worth the money alone.

A final takeaway: Persistence. Have one goal and persist in doing that. As Dr Jiang advised,  “Once you have an idea, a patent, it will take about 10 years for the patent to be recognised as useful. You have to be persistent and survive for yourself for 10 years. "