Living and working in the Asia-Pacific region for the past 7 years has given me a close-up view of the fast growth of its life sciences sector and the unique challenges it faces when recruiting senior business leaders. To a large extent, the growth of the industry is outstripping the supply of home grown top talent, but there are some new trends that offer more hope for the future.

To be specific, the problem isn’t a lack of talented people here, so much as a shortage of experience. China has in fact a huge technical talent pool with basic research learning ability and implementation that is arguably as good as anywhere in the world. Being part of an international industry however, requires leaders to have a global track record that involves understanding the Western business model and all that it entails, from cultural differences to the nuances of Sarbanes-Oxley and EU regulation. Particularly in human sciences, we need people who offer problem-solving, strategic-thinking, communication, cross-functional teamwork and leadership skills.

Because of these constraints, the local pool of experienced biotech CEOs in China is small. We have little experienced CEO talent in the biotech environment, which reflects the relatively short history of the industry in China compared with the United States and Europe. The biotech CEOs we have so far 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.

Drug development leadership is in short supply here. One source of those leaders is of course returnees from overseas in pre- and clinical-research and development, regulatory, and business development. In the US, it’s easy to find a large pool of talented and experienced people who were born and educated in China. Identifying substantial career opportunities for these individuals in China however, is only part of the challenge. The substantial ecosystems that exist on the US West and East Coasts and their proximity to the FDA will continue to mean for many, that in terms of career in life sciences, the US is still the ‘place to be’. Very often it is a complex combination of professional/career interests and personal/family circumstances that encourage PRC-born talent to return to China. It is a matter so sensitive in its timing that 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.

We are seeing a big uptick in innovation from biotech start-ups established in China by the alumni of multinational pharma companies. Armed with serious levels of VC funding, we now see seasoned R&D Heads from the traditional major global pharmaceutical and biotech businesses transition successfully into the role of CEO for biotechs 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.

Over the next 5 to 10 years we can expect to see the continual emergence of home grown innovative biotechs into a cluster that proves itself capable of breakthrough drugs, including first-in-class innovations. Already a reality in China, are global CRO’s offering integrated, end-to-end services and open-innovation platforms to support both R&D and manufacturing. These are indeed very exciting times for anyone interested in furthering their career in China.

Andy Smith, Partner |

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