Redefining the Scholar-Athlete: China Biotech CEOs
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June 26, 2020
23 min read
Technology and InnovationHealthcareBoard and CEO AdvisoryInnovation, Research, and Development
At a high level, the leaders of China’s largest biotech firms are a remarkably entrepreneurial, international and educated group.
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Biotech China Landscape 

China’s nascent biotech industry is booming. Catalyzed by the 2015 “Made in China 2025” government initiative that prioritizes the sector’s growth, Chinese regulators have begun the move to a more flexible and streamlined regulatory process that elevates safety and quality. This has opened up opportunities for both Chinese and international biotech companies to bring innovative therapies to market earlier, particularly as new approval processes recognize clinical trials conducted outside China. 

As the drug development process matures, the state-led reimbursement regime is also modernizing. Regular updates to the National Reimbursement Drug List (NRDL) since 2017 mean more coverage for cutting-edge therapies; earning a spot on the list is now a proxy for a company’s revenue potential. These refinements also raise some new barriers. The NRDL, along with other programs such as volume-based purchasing, create strong pressure to lower drug prices, making it all the more challenging for new players with high start-up costs to enter the market. 

Meanwhile, the investor landscape is rapidly evolving as well. Experienced investors who are well-established in the China market and familiar with biotech investments continue to play a major role. In recent years, they have been joined by a group of newer investors coming from outside the drug discovery and development market, but who are highly interested in getting into the industry; an interest that has not been dampened by Covid-related concerns or challenging market conditions. Looking at all of China’s biotech companies, just 21 percent are publicly held (with all IPOs in the past 10 years), while 75 percent are at much earlier stages of venture funding. The balance – 4 percent – are privately held, without outside investors. 

In this fast-changing environment, as investors and founders are still figuring out their paths to success, leadership is paramount. To understand more about China’s current group of market-leading biotech CEOs, BayHelix Group and Russell Reynolds Associates had conversations with a number of biotech CEOs and investors who shared their most critical challenges and considerations with us. This research, along with our deep market knowledge, helps illuminate the leadership profiles that have built China’s biotech sector to date, and which qualities and experiences will be most essential for the market’s continued development and success.

Profile of a Biotech CEO 

At a high level, the leaders of China’s largest biotech firms are a remarkably entrepreneurial, international and educated group. Close to 80 percent of current CEOs are company founders; nearly 75 percent have PhDs. With most coming from R&D backgrounds, these CEOs have deep scientific experience as well as a profound understanding of the China biotech landscape; average tenure for the group is 9.5 years. In terms of business experience, many have held past roles with large multinationals, giving them an appreciation of the scale and sophistication needed to bring new therapies to market. Forty-two percent of the current biotech CEOs worked for large pharma companies; 66 percent were previously in biotech. In addition, about half bring experience from outside of biotech, including medtech and venture capital firms. Over the course of their educations and careers, many spent significant time overseas before returning to China to launch their companies. 

Broadly speaking, we see three main archetypes among these CEOs. One group came straight out of academia, bringing very strong scientific foundations with them. A second group spent the bulk of their previous careers at large pharma companies, some with P&L roles; others with business development or regulatory backgrounds. A third group is comprised of former venture partners who bring significant investment experience. 

What most sets these CEOs apart from their peers who stay within the traditional academic, multinational or investment career tracks, however, is their exceptional appetite for risk, and their passion and determination to bring innovative therapies to the China market. These intangible qualities, combined with the networks of investors and advisors they have built to support them, are crucial elements of their success.

Demographics 

  • 85% male  
  • 15% female  
  • ~55 years old Current age, average

Academic Formation 

  • 50% Master's degree  
  • 27% MBA  
  • 10% MD  
  • 73% PhD

Current Role 

  • 84% First-time CEOs  
  • 77-10-13 Founder-to-internal-to-external hire ratio  
  • 9.5 years Tenure in current CEO position   

Functional Experience 

Roles held prior to current CEO position, multiple responses possible 

  • 82% R&D  
  • 29% P&L  
  • 16% CEO  
  • 8% Finance  
  • 6% Sales  
  • 6% Marketing    

Industry Experience 

Prior to current CEO position, multiple responses possible 

  • 66% have worked in biotech 8.0 years on average  
  • 42% have worked in large pharma 7.8 years on average  
  • 26% have worked in academia 5.5 years on average  
  • 49% have worked outside of the biopharma industry (e.g., MedTech, VC, consulting, other)   

Source: RRA proprietary research on 55+ CEOs at leading biotech companies in China, April 2020  

 

Key Competencies for Success 

In our interviews with prominent leaders intimately involved with biotech companies – either as founders, leaders or investors – a number of common success themes emerged. We combined these in-depth interview insights with our proprietary market knowledge to better understand which leadership competencies were most important for China biotech CEOs. Our analysis shows these competencies fall into two broad categories: leadership qualities and professional experience.      

Leadership Qualities  

  • Visionary
  • Champion for innovation and higher performance
  • Talent catalyst
  • Resilient and persistent
  • Agile risk taker

Source: RRA research   

Experiential Qualities  

  • Purpose-driven
  • Deep scientific knowledge and acumen
  • Well-connected with advisors and mentors
  • Understands the investment community

Source: RRA research     

Leadership Qualities

Visionary

The ability to articulate a clear vision and then communicate that vision in a compelling way to a diverse audience, including investors, the medical and scientific community, and internal staff, is a key differentiator for biotech CEOs in China. This is particularly important as China moves away from its historical model of adapting established therapies for the region toward producing truly innovative drugs. 

“In the most successful companies, the vision comes from the founder-scientist passion. China is still in transition, so there aren’t many leaders who can be visionary. And some have the vision but have to find a way to articulate it, which can be a learning process,” a managing director for one Chinese venture fund noted. 

These founders will go to great lengths to help bring their vision to life, especially when it is not as clear to others. When investors got nervous about the science behind one drug development start-up and pressured board members to ask local scientists to validate its work, the founder and CEO took his own action. “I empathized with their anxiety, and decided to actively engage with the research directors the investors trusted,” he said, which ultimately quelled their fears. 

Champion for Innovation and High Performance

A hallmark of China’s biotech CEOs is their intellectual curiosity and quick learning styles, coupled with a deep-seated desire to do something new in the market. As a result, they are relentless in their quest for innovation and excellence. They push themselves and their teams to continually move toward this goal, no matter how much progress they have already made. 

This competency holds true for both early-stage and established biotechs. “My biggest challenge is to motivate our clinical team to keep breaking barriers,” said the founder and CEO of a biotech that recently completed an IPO. “We continue to believe in our mission of being first in class. As we are a discovery company, we do not have precedents to follow. We are not me-too.” 

The need to push boundaries and stay ahead of the curve becomes all the more intense in a fast-moving environment. “Chinese biotech needs to have a global mindset, versus the current mainstream of “in China for China” mentality,” said Zhao-Kui (ZK) Wan, founder and CEO of Lynk Pharmaceuticals. “We should aim for discovering and developing products of global quality and made them available globally.”   

“Chinese biotech needs to have a global mindset, versus the current mainstream of “in China for China” mentality.” 

Zhao-Kui (ZK) Wan, founder and CEO of Lynk Pharmaceuticals 

Within two years of founding, Lynk already has three products entering clinical stage. But with competition abounding, there is no room for complacency. “Moving forward, success is our enemy,” he added. “I can already foresee that we will have to change accordingly to build our clinical team quickly in order to realize our potential.” 

Clearly, it is not possible for a CEO to do it all, which speaks to the need for next competency: Talent Catalyst.  

Talent Catalyst

The intense competition for talent in the China biotech space is compounded by the relative limited pool of experienced talent, as the sector has only existed for about a decade. As such, China’s biotech firms typically have had to attract talent from big pharma companies. While these professionals often have the right functional expertise, they may or may not adapt well to a start-up environment with limited infrastructure, resources and leverage. 

As such, China’s biotech CEOs must become masters of choosing the right people for their teams and retaining them over the course of an often-challenging journey. A key facet of success here is the ability to develop talent and teams – particularly those who come from a multinational pharma company – so that they grow with the organization, something which does not often come naturally. 

“I am a scientist, and we tend to be loners by personality,” said Dr. Derek Deng Guanghui, founder and CEO of Shanghai Integle. “At the beginning, I tended to rush to the front of every problem and tried to solve them all by myself. However, I now try and bring people along with me, and coach them. I have found that if I am willing to discuss strategy and issues, my team can do even better than me.” 

“I now try and bring people along with me, and coach them. I have found that if I am willing to discuss strategy and issues, my team can do even beer than me.” 

Dr. Derek Deng Guanghui, founder and CEO of Shanghai Integle   

Another prominent CEO said if he could build his company again, he would focus on building out the leadership team earlier, even ahead of the scientific team, to increase his own effectiveness. In the early days, “I had to play so many roles – CBO, CEO, CSO – that ultimately I was exhausted.” 

To succeed in this area, biotech CEOs must be humble, encourage learning from failure and put team and organizational needs ahead of their own. At the same time, they are confident leaders, delegating effectively, setting stretch goals, overcoming obstacles and holding themselves and others accountable to high standards. 

Resilient and Persistent

China’s biotech CEOs bring an incredible conviction about their long-term mission and objectives that allows them to put short-term challenges and setbacks into perspective. To an outside observer, it seems nothing can get them down. When faced with adversity, they are resourceful and creative to find new solutions. 

In their quest to be first in class, every CEO we spoke with had encountered challenges that might have seemed insurmountable at the time – but all of them persisted in one way or another. Several CEOs received negative feedback about their original ideas and chose to change their focus as a result, re-channeling their energy and enthusiasm to solve different problems. One CEO developed his original idea to a certain point, and then realized there was not enough traction around the specific therapeutic area in China. Rather than accept defeat, he reestablished his company in another country. 

Personal resilience is key, which seems to be fueled by their deep passion for the science and commitment to changing patients’ lives. As leaders, it is also important for CEOs to inspire resilience in others, namely their teams and investors. Given that China biotech industry is still relatively young, those who join are taking greater risks than they would joining an MNC. Leaders have to show that even through the toughest of times, when money is running out, when the science is not working or when investors have turned away, that they still believe and they can help their teams do the same.

Agile Risk Taker

Risk-taking CEOs seize opportunities as they arise and operate with a bias for action, even when information is incomplete. They thrive in ambiguity, managing stress and responding flexibly to change and complexity. They know when to stand their ground and when to pivot, with no sentimental attachment to the strategies and tactics that have led to previous success. Ultimately, this appetite for risk is what allows them to deliver breakthrough innovation. 

These are essential qualities of China’s biotech CEOs, many of whom have had to pivot their entire business plans in order to move forward. Adam Zhao, founding partner of the Anlong Fund, returned to China in 2003 after working for large global pharma companies in the US. His goal was launching a company focused on innovative R&D. When discussion with investors were not promising, however, he changed course to meet market needs. “The investment community was not ready for such a concept at that time,” Zhao recalled in recent conversation. “Instead, after discussions with my network, I started a distribution company for medical devices.” After selling his company, Longmed, Inc., in 2010, he founded Anlong. 

This agility is also important for CEOs as leaders as their organizations evolve. “Companies can grow very rapidly, that’s part of the challenge,” noted a leading biotech investor. “How do you maintain a level of efficiency, and company culture, as you go from 30 employees to 70 and then to 200?” Successful biotech leaders are able to master this challenge, rather than getting stuck at a particular stage or letting old ways of operating hold the company back.   

Experiential Skills

Purpose-Driven

Given the difficult environment in which they operate, it is not surprising that China’s biotech CEOs bring a strong sense of personal purpose to their organizations. Many spoke of the deep sense of responsibility they feel to make China (and the world) a better place, and as motivation for their commitment to long-term innovation. 

One CEO co-founded two biotech start-ups in the US and his third in China. “Innovative R&D is my personal driving force. I really enjoy the freedom to try new directions and see my hypotheses translate to real impact,” he said. “If you just want to make a quick buck, this is not the path for you.” 

Another founder and CEO said his driving force was the patients his company helps, since “only if you have that type of motivation” can you have enough energy every day. “I really want to use my own intellectual experience to do something good for patients,” he added. “That’s the only thing I can do. I wish I could more.” 

Some current CEOs advise would-be founders to test this sense of purpose before launching a biotech in China. “Do it only if you have a mind of “doing or dying;” otherwise do not start,” is the advice that Dr. Liu Liping, founder and CEO of HighTide Therapeutics, regularly offers to aspiring biotech entrepreneurs. 

“Do it only if you have a mind of “doing or dying;” otherwise do not start.” 

Dr. Liu Liping, founder and CEO of HighTide Therapeutics  

Deep Scientific Knowledge and Acumen

Deep scientific knowledge is a universal strength among China’s biotech CEOs, both in terms of education and real-world application. As noted before, nearly 75 percent have PhDs, 42 percent have worked for large pharma companies and about two-thirds have previous biotech experience. Most have stellar track records of product research and development and stay connected to the latest technological developments. However, investors largely view this as table stakes, rather than a distinctive element of success.    

Well-Connected with Advisors and Mentors

Successful biotech CEOs in China understand the limits of their own knowledge – on both the scientific and the business fronts – and cultivate an extended network of advisors and mentors to help support them. These networks often help them make the necessary connections to grow their teams and finances and may also help them develop personally. 

“I only have one brain, so I rely a lot on my partners. They have complementary experiences to mine. We debate a lot and try and come up with better solutions. We also have advisors who could help us,” said Zhao-Kui (ZK) Wan, CEO and founder of Lynk Pharmaceuticals. 

As much as China’s biotech CEOs are willing to ask for help, they are also willing to give it. Many spoke of the exchanges they have with other founders or potential founders, and their desire to proactively contribute to the development of the biotech ecosystem in China. “It’s important to be generous with advice, as this leads to even stronger networks,” said Dr. Derek Deng Guanghui, founder and CEO of Shanghai Integle.

Understands the Investment Community 

A key differentiator between being a successful scientist and being a successful biotech CEO is the ability to translate scientific knowledge for non-scientists, particularly as more venture investors who may not have biotech backgrounds seek to enter the market. “Biotech is an industry that is more based on dream than profitability; therefore, it takes more effort to persuade investors for money,” said Dr. Liu Liping, CEO of HighTide. 

This may be true in any market, but especially in one where the investment community is still developing. China’s venture capitalists “have passion, they want to get into biotech and do good things. But they are newcomers, just like us,” said one leading biotech CEO. “So, to be a biotech executive in China requires good communication skills, that’s the reality.” 

As a result, CEOs often need to flex their storytelling abilities to educate the investor community not just on the technology platform or modality, but on the therapeutic area, market potential, biology and mechanism. 

Increasingly this competency may also extend to being able to embrace foreign companies who are eager to enter the market through joint ventures or other forms of partnerships. “We only invest in a company if the CEO has experience in the leadership team of an MNC” for this reason, said Adam Zhao of Anlong. 

Big picture, China’s biotech CEOs know the full investor landscape and when and how to help each group appreciate the potential of their science.

Leadership Qualities

Visionary

  • Articulates a clear vision and communicates it to a diverse audience, including employees, investors, and the broader medical and scientific community 
  • Strategic and long-term, anticipates external changes and applies astute market and industry insights to drive innovation 
  • Entrepreneurial, yet pragmatic enough to understand and address the concerns of potential investors   

Champion for Innovation and Higher Performance

  • Intellectually curious, with a learning mindset 
  • Sets high expectations for team members, builds a culture of top team performance 
  • Learns quickly, adapts, then translates into business insights and strategy for implementation 

Talent Catalyst 

  • Recruits and retains the right people to excel over the course of a challenging journey 
  • Builds complementary teams and facilitates teamwork, leverages diversity and inclusion, role-models self-improvement 
  • Encourages learning from failure and puts the needs of the team and organization first

Resilient and Persistent

  • Conviction and focus on long-term objectives; able to put short-term challenges and setbacks into perspective 
  • Resourceful and creative; knows how to leverage resources and networks to scale leadership 

Agile Risk Taker

  • Knows when to pivot; is unsentimental about the strategies and tactics that have led to previous success 
  • Comfortable with uncertainty; willing to constantly adapt mindset and strategy to a fast-evolving and unpredictable operating environment 
  • Nimble and quick to change the path forward when needed 

Experiential Qualities

Purpose-Driven

  • Defines, communicates and personally exemplifies the purpose of the organization 
  • Cares about the impact of the business on the world 
  • Supports innovation and commits to long-term goals   

Champion for Innovation and Higher Performance

  • Brings deep scientific knowledge; connected to the latest technological developments 
  • Stellar track record of product research and development 
  • Educates the investment community and the market broadly; not just on the technology platform or modality, but on the therapeutic area, market potential, biology and mechanism    

Well-Connected with Advisors and Mentors

  • Brings an extended network of advisors and mentors and knows how to leverage and grow this network 
  • Knows when to ask for help, trade ideas and networks to build teams 
  • Willing to offer help and proactively contribute to the development of the biotech ecosystem 

Understands the Investment Community 

  • Knows the investor landscape and when and how to bring them in 
  • Skilled at communicating the story and potential of the science 
  • Deft translator and storyteller 

Checklist for the Biotech CEO

  1. Be clear on why you want to start a Biotech company 
    Be clear on why you want to start a biotech company and what you bring to the table, whether it is the science, the managerial experience or BD experience, etc. Equally important, know what gaps you have to fill by building or buying.
  2. Stress test you vision with trusted mentors 
    Make sure that you stress test your vision with trusted mentors who have successfully run a biotech company.
  3. Conduct intense due diligence on potential investors
    Do the research on potential investors to understand their backgrounds, investment theses and tailor your story accordingly. Do intense due diligence on potential investors before accepting their money. They are “like family – you have to live with them for a very long time,” as one CEO said. 
  4. Do not try to be the hero - build up a strong team around you
    Do not try and be the hero – build up a team with the right range of expertise early on. Focus particularly on the executive team and invest in their development as well as that of the scientific team. A strong peer set allows the CEO mind space to keep ahead of the game and avoid mistakes. 
  5. Proactively build up a professional network
    Proactively build up a professional network and leverage it as a valuable resource for access to expertise and market intelligence for potential talent hires. 
  6. When hiring, do not neglect the importance of values and learning agility 
    Do not neglect the importance of values and learning agility when assessing talent. 
  7. Clearly communicate your vision to the team - and be ready to listen
    Assiduously communicate your vision to the team and be accessible – the troops need to understand the mission and maintain the passion to stay the course.    

Authors

Grace Lu leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Healthcare sector in Greater China. Based in Beijing, she advises multinational and Chinese clients on their overall talent strategy, particularly in the context of scaling commercial operations and geographic expansion. 


Yvonne Lu is a senior member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ global Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology practice. Based in San Francisco, she advises cross-border US and Chinese companies on building transformative executive teams and boards. 
 

Saule Serikova is Russell Reynolds Associates’ global knowledge leader for the Healthcare sector. Based in Amsterdam, she leads knowledge activities and proprietary insights generation related to key talent challenges in the global healthcare market segments. 
 

We are grateful for the contributions of biotech founders, leaders and investors including: 

  • Anlong 
  • Chipscreen 
  • Hightide 
  • Integle 
  • Lily Asia Ventures 
  • Lynk Pharmaceuticals 
  • Panacea Venture Healthcare 
  • XW Laboratories