Big Pharma executives jump to China startups for higher pay and more say: report

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China's booming biotech industry has attracted a long list of global pharma executives. (daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

Regulatory support from the Chinese government and growing interest from the investment world have contributed to China’s booming biotech industry, which has continuously been luring talent away from multinational drug companies.

In recent years, many former Chinese executives from the likes of Pfizer, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Sanofi either jumped to domestic biopharmas or struck out on their own. The drivers behind their decisions: higher salary and more room for growth in an entrepreneurial environment, according to the Financial Times.

China has been relying heavily on generics, and that kind of a market left small room for innovation, leaving only a handful of multinationals as the main sources of innovative drugs in the country. Therefore, when the biotech industry does come alive, it’s only natural that it will turn to these global companies for talent.

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“The value proposition of local biotechs is clear: they provide an entrepreneurial environment, there is the possibility of future public listing and exciting opportunities in terms of building a business,” Franck Le Deu, a senior partner at McKinsey in Hong Kong, was quoted by FT.

Xiaobin Wu, Ph.D., formerly Pfizer China's general manager who recently jumped to BeiGene, told FT that at Chinese biotech startups, “the working dynamic is very different and the decision making is fast.”

In 2017, the Chinese biopharma industry received $11.7 billion in venture capital investment, according to ChinaBio. Those handsome financial injections not only went to R&D activities, but also offer a larger pool for executive pay. According to Simon Lance, Greater China managing director for recruiting firm Hays, who was interviewed by FT, Chinese startups offered 20% higher base salaries than global pharmas.

Here is a nonexhaustive summary of some recent examples of Chinese MNC-to-biotech shifts:

  • William Liang, recently AstraZeneca’s China oncology sales chief with prior management experience at Bristol-Myers Squibb and Roche, became Zai Lab’s chief commercial officer as the company prepares for its first commercial launch.
  • Zhi Hong, Ph.D., an 11-year GlaxoSmithKline veteran who most recently was its head of infectious disease, started China-focused Brii Biosciences with $260 million in capital and a licensing deal with Vir Biotechnologies.
  • Shoubai Chao, Ph.D., once an SVP with AstraZeneca’s BioVentures focused on building partnerships with leading biotech companies in China and other Asian countries, landed at vaccine specialist CanSino Biologics as chief operating officer.
  • Xiaobin Wu, Ph.D., who served as Pfizer’s China GM from 2009 and grew Pfizer’s China business to the largest among global pharmas, became BeiGene’s president and China GM in May.
  • Bin Peng, M.D., Ph.D., joined immuno-oncology biotech EpimAb Biotherapeutics as chief medical officer in February. Prior to that, he was global head of oncology translational medicine at China Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Shanghai.
  • Weidong Zhong, Ph.D., launched liver disease-focused Terns Pharmaceuticals a year ago and in April got three NASH programs from Eli Lilly. Before Terns, he was the global head of antiviral research at NIBR and served with Gilead.
  • Jay May, M.D., Ph.D., who had been an executive director of clinical development at Celgene, founded Antengene, which has signed licensing agreement with Celgene and most recently Karyopharm.
  • Lingshi Tan, Ph.D., who was general manager of Pfizer’s China R&D Center, founded CRO dMed in 2016.
  • Frank Jiang, M.D., Ph.D., ex-head of Asia-Pacific R&D at Sanofi, jumped ship to CStone in mid-2016 as CEO.