Whatever statistics one reads about China, they never fail to impress with their scale and rate of growth. In 2007, China was the world’s ninth largest pharmaceutical market and just twelve years later it ranks second, soon to be first. According to KPMG’s R&D 2030 report1, the growth of the life science sector has exceeded that of the Chinese economy as a whole over the last decade. In 2018, $43 billion of life science investment was raised for new venture capital and private equity funds targeted at China life science investments.

This is strategically important for the Chinese state as it intends to provide affordable and effective healthcare for all its people, while developing a home-grown life sciences industry able to deliver high quality products and services. Further reforms are planned to reduce the price of drugs, accelerate the new drug approval process, channel more funding into R&D and allow market forces to play a greater role in determining prices.

All of this will depend on the availability of talented people in medicine, science and business to deliver the success for which investors and the Chinese government are hoping as they drive more than 50% of the demand for people in the APAC region.

Missing talent

The problem is that there are very few homegrown life science leaders in China, far too few to go around, especially given the rate of the sector’s growth. The biotech CEOs who work in China tend to come from a medical or scientific background, because when China started allowing its citizens to leave about 25 years ago, it was the scientists and medics who left to get US/EU experience, not the commercial people. So, there are plenty of scientists able and willing to start companies but it’s the business leaders who are missing and, of course, these are the people who are needed to manage growth, attract investment and lead a course through to the clinic. Specifically, China’s companies need to make their processes and procedures look like those of western companies. They have done it in manufacturing and now need to apply it to the early stages of drug development.

Some demand can be met by experienced heads of R&D from major global pharmaceutical and biotech businesses transitioning into being biotech CEOs focused on best-in-class assets. These executives usually have international experience and have worked in China for many years. They know the local system well and have proven communication skills, strategic-thinking ability, and deep expertise.

The most likely solution is to pull Chinese people who have worked in big pharma back from North America and Europe. China’s life science companies can spend significant sums of their investors’ money on these people as well as being generous with stock. Additionally, some larger companies are open to bringing non-Chinese people to work for them in China, this is a growing trend so long as the barriers such as language and willingness to move families can be overcome.

How can we help?

Searches for these individuals are unavoidably labour intensive and ultimately, require a good deal of patience and understanding on the behalf of the employer to successfully manage candidates through their return to China.

At The RSA Group we have an established network and knowledge of the intricacies involved in moving senior people from elsewhere to China. This includes carefully shepherding people through process, knowing how to partner and how to source candidates.

We expect to see the continual emergence of home grown talent into an industry that proves itself capable of breakthrough drugs, including first-in-class innovations. Already in China, are global CRO’s offering integrated, end-to-end services and open-innovation platforms to support both R&D and manufacturing. Exciting times for anyone interested in furthering their career in China.

Join in the discussion, contact our Asia expert Andy Smith on Andy.Smith@theRSA group.com or call him on D:  +65 6823 8023.

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