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  • Brendan Shaw

What trade war?: Western and Chinese life science companies just get on with it

"When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills"

- Chinese proverb

There’s been a lot said about the strained relations between Western countries and China.

But no one seems to have told the life sciences sector, which is just getting on with building new global alliances in an international industry that benefits economies and humanity alike.

Tense times?

We’ve been hearing a lot about the tense relationship between China and the West in recent times.

Be it about trade wars, phone companies, aid programs, infrastructure projects, elections, security issues and even sports stars, it seems that various arguments have accompanied China’s growing importance in the global economy.

For a start, there's a major trade war going on at the moment between the United States and China.

We’ve even seen tweets from presidents ordering US companies to leave China altogether and find other markets.

There have been a few investment deals in pharma and life sciences which have involved Chinese investors blocked by investment regulators in the US - something that has raised the ire of the US biotech association.

And in other jurisdictions, including Australia, Canada and the UK as well as the EU, their relationship with China and concerns surrounding that are often debated.

Against this backdrop, one might be under the impression that this is paralysing business.

Life science sector just gets on with business

But if my experience in recent times is anything to go by, the life sciences sector is just getting on with it.

Pharmaceutical, biotech, medtech and diagnostic healthcare companies are investing, building links and integrating across countries like Australia, China, the UK and the US regardless of whatever conniptions are happening elsewhere.

In September this year I attended the China Biomed Innovation Investment Conference (CBIIC) in Suzhou organised by the China Pharmaceutical International Innovation and Research Development Association (PhIRDA).

This conference, hosting over 3,000 people, offered several fascinating days of networking and presentations on the developments in both the Chinese and international life sciences sector.

I spoke with companies from Australia, China, Japan, the UK and the US about the opportunities to collaborate in developing new medical technologies.

I was impressed by the calibre of people from all of these countries.

The optimism in the CBIIC sessions about the latest medical research, new medicines in the pipeline and growing investment links between China and other countries was a welcome change from the negative reaction we sometimes see towards such economic integration.

More recently I had the pleasure of moderating a pitching session for young, start-up health technology companies with venture capitalists in Shanghai hosted by Joyin/HiMed life science incubator.

This pitching session was a real eye-opener for me.

We had biotech, medtech and diagnostic companies from countries like Australia, China, Singapore and the UK competing for start-up support and investment capital.

All of them were impressive companies with great technology and smart, inspiring people taking a chance by starting new businesses to make their ideas a success.

The positive buzz in the room reflected the future of healthcare in China and internationally.

It was quite refreshing after all the focus on the differences between China and other countries we often see.

And, finally, in October I co-hosted a workshop in London organised by British China Technology Incubator and the China Britain Business Council for British health technology companies looking to expand into China.

The British companies that attended wanted to know more about China.

They had many good, insightful questions but there was no reticence about engaging with China per se.

These companies were keen to understand how China could be part of their international growth strategy, just like any other major market.

Private sector leads the way

What struck me about all of these events was the complete dissonance between the current political difficulties between China and the West on the one hand and the obvious collaboration present in the business sector.

It was an example that while some are arguing that we should put up walls between China and Western economies and emphasise the differences, the health technology sector is encouraging collaboration and integration between the different countries.

Everyone at these events shared an interest in developing new technology and achieving commercial success by improving peoples' lives.

And the data backs up the trends that I witnessed first hand.

Life science patent levels in both the US and China are growing, a reflection that both countries have more in common in life sciences than might appear.

Source: Shawview Consulting chart created from World Intellectual Property Organization statistics database, October 2019,, accessed 22/11/2019.

While there have been complaints about China’s IP policies in the past, it has been suggested that these claims may be overblown and, in many cases, are a normal part of companies doing business in a competitive market.

To put things into perspective, China’s current pattern of industrial and intellectual property development in many ways mirrors the history of the United States’ own such development from earlier times.

And from the discussions I've had, my sense is that there haven't been many IP issues in China for Western life sciences companies at least.

Companies are continuing to invest in China despite the current tensions, including in China’s life sciences sector.

We’ve seen recent examples where both the Western and Chinese life science industries are becoming more integrated and internationalised regardless of whatever else is going on:

  • AstraZeneca’s recent announcement of a US$ 1 billion fund to support new life science and medtech companies in China

  • Other companies such as Merck KGA and J&J investing development funds in China

  • The approval by the US Food and Drug Administration of the first Chinese-developed medicine zanubrutinib – a drug developed by Chinese company, BeiGene, to treat leukemia and lymphoma

  • Amgen taking a 20.5% stake in BeiGene

  • Chinese life science companies launching 26 new international clinical trials in 2018 in places like the US and Europe, up from just four in 2013, and

  • Chinese investment in US pharma and biotech deals increasing by 31% between 2017 and 2018.

Health technology companies continue to build commercial ties in the name of investing in new medical technologies to improve humanity.

In all the events I attended there was no ‘us and them’ that I could see.

There was just a desire to co-invest and partner between companies and investors from Australia, China, the UK, the US, Singapore.

No one seemed to care where anyone was from.

It was a nice change from what we sometimes read in the newspapers or see on social media.

Going forward

This is not to say that there aren’t important - and difficult - issues to be discussed in the relationship between East and West.

The political issues are complex, many and varied and are likely to continue for some time.

But it was instructive to see the ongoing integration occurring between China and the rest of the world at least in health technology industries which should ultimately benefit patients in all countries alike.

As sometimes happens, it is the business sector that can build alliances, common purposes and equality between economies, countries and cultures.

Taking a cue from the old Chinese proverb, the life sciences sector seems to be building a few windmills of its own.

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