SIUOxford: Building Bridges in Biotech between UK-China (Part II)

Author: Emil Fristed Edited by: Ruth Sang Jones

In our second event of the two part series on the UK-China ecosystem for science and technology collaboration, we were introduced to the contract research organization Wuxi AppTech Co, founded in China and now globally operating. OSCAR, the Oxford-Suzhou Center for Advanced research, was also presented to highlight the on-going projects that boost research partnership between the UK and China. 

Dr. Dave Madge

Drug discovery is an extremely time sensitive business. Work is done against the clock to meet patients' needs, but the duration of drug development is typically very long. It is an extremely risk prone business. When the game is good, it is really good; but there are many failures. Increasingly, big pharma are de-risking their early stage pipeline, and saving money in doing so, by outsourcing the early stage drug disvoery to academia or smaller biotech companires. But on the other hand, smaller academic start-ups or biotech companies that want to expand research activities might not have the resoruces to do so. This is where ‘contract research organisations’ (CROs) fit in, serving both the big and small in the industry. 

Dr Dave Madge is the vice-president of the Research service Division at Wuxi AppTec Co., a Chinese-based CRO with a global footprint extending over 30 sites worldwide. He explained the expanding role of CROs in the drug development ecosystem. As one example, a small biotech company might lack the resources to set up a full R&D infrastructure up front. But for a smaller amount they can temporarily ‘rent’ the complete R&D infrastructure at Wuxi AppTec. For big pharma companies that are tentative about an early stage drug candidate and are unwilling to build research facilites to support the new area, Wuxi AppTec can be hired to outsource the research. CROs can be hired on a project basis, but the good ones tend to also have longer term engagements with clients. Importantly, when a CRO such as Wuxi AppTec gets assigned to a project, they (usually) don’t take any stake of the IP, regardless of the novelty of the findings. They will simply get the work done, and hand it over to the client.

Dr Madge also talked about how capital availability drives geographical distribution of early discovery. China is maturing quickly as a pharmaceuticals market. Major changes are happening to the Chinese FDA. The IP legislation is getting updated, which is spurred on by the realisation that IP protection incentivises innovation. And, echoing previous speakers insights, Dr Madge emphasized that capital availability in China is good. Responding to a question on the venture capital landscape in China, he explained: Traditionally there has been a much shorter timescale for return in China, but this is changing. There is an increasing globalisation of the venture capital community in China, which is growing in alignment with the standards and practice of the EU and US communities.

Prof. Zhangfeng Cui

Prof. Zhanfeng Cui is the Founding Director of OSCAR, the Oxford-Suzhou Center for Advanced Research, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and also the director of the Oxford Centre for Tissue Engineering and Bioprocessing. His work has been centred around tissue engineering products, diabetes, and CART therapy. An engineer by training, he explains his problem solving approach to science: Identify what the core problem is. What are the key steps that are needed to solve the problem. Where can he help. Importantly, the problem needs to be worth it; so in addition to the hard engineering breakdown, it’s also necessary to make cost-benefit analyses and value judgements.

OSCAR is a research facility wholly owned by the University of Oxford. Research focus includes healthcare, environment, biotechnology, nanotechnology and functional materials. It is led by Oxford established professors in collaboration with a global community. The catch: It is placed in China. The rational is to provide infrastructure for a collaborative platform between the UK and China.

Prof. Cui also provided some thoughts on the relative merits of the UK vs. China. The UK is very strong in R&D; there is evident bang for buck, and bang per researcher (as mentioned in Part I)  along with a strong innovation base. But the market is relatively small. Therefore, upcoming biotech businesses that conduct their early stage research in the UK generally need to expand out of the country to scale up. The established route is to go to the US, where the market is bigger and venture capital is strong. But Prof. Cui explained how China might be an increasingly attractive alternative route to scale and commercialisation. China has a lot of people (i.e. a big market!) and there’s a lot of available capital.

As always, both events (Part I and Part II) were followed by a Q&A and networking session, where the discussions continued.

The two-part UK-China innovation event was co-organised with the Oxford Chinese Life Sciences Society (OCLSS).