Chinese Pharma High-Fliers Blaze A Trail

China Daily, Beijing / Asia News Network

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A Chinese proverb states that “women hold up half the sky”, which can be applied to the three female executives helping Zai Lab evolve from a small startup in 2013 to a company that recently secured $100 million for its second-round financing. Despite all the success, this article takes a look at the drawbacks of women entrepreneurship in the male-dominated field of pharma in China.


Being an entrepreneur is hard, but being a female entrepreneur can be even harder. Particularly in male-dominated industries, female entrepreneurs require not only skills but also a great big serving of courage.

According to information released in January by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor — a project run by a consortium of universities — China saw more entrepreneurship activity in 2014 than the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Japan.

Two-thirds of new business in China was driven by entrepreneurship, but what is more interesting is that women entrepreneurs have been particularly dynamic in China.

Among them is Samantha Du, a pioneer in China’s biotech industry. She featured on the cover of Forbes Asia in 2007 and is known as an entrepreneur, serial investor, the founder of pioneering biopharmaceutical companies, and is a wife and mother of two.

“I have never felt discriminated in terms of getting paid but I’ll have to say this industry is still a man’s world,” Du told China Daily Asia Weekly.

Her experiences, and those of some of her colleagues, offer a unique window into the possibilities open for women, but they also underline the reality that the scales are still tilted and women have to work harder than men to achieve the same level of success.

Du’s latest venture, Zai Lab, discovers, develops and commercializes innovative medicines for unmet medical needs globally. It has a range of drug candidates going through various clinical trials as the company works to become a research and development (R&D) powerhouse. And Du is driving it forward.

She started out as a biochemist, training in the US. She obtained her PhD at the University of Cincinnati in the 1980s and spent eight years at the multinational pharmaceutical company Pfizer as an R&D scientist.

Leaving Pfizer, she went back to Asia and founded her first company, Hutchison China MediTech, which is now listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market for smaller companies.

Du then switched to the investment side of the life sciences industry and started work as an adjunct professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“After investing in many good companies that later all became successful, I felt like China’s pharma R&D innovation needed a leader that is globally recognised. That’s why I founded Zai Lab,” said Du.

“After 13 years of experience in the industry, I decided to start this company.”

Zai in Chinese means “once more” and refers to Du’s multiple ventures.

“A lot of the people in the industry were asking me at the time — why not set up a company again? They were being very supportive and that’s one of the reasons I started Zai Lab.”

Interestingly, the top three executives at Zai Lab are women: Du herself, chief medical officer Liu Qi and chief operating officer Marietta Wu.

This was not a matter of design or any kind of statement, but rather chance and the availability of highly qualified women.

“This just happens to be the case, not because I was favoring women,” Du said with a laugh. “I interviewed 60 candidates for the positions. Three of them were women, and it was the females who turned out to be most suitable for the job.

“For this kind of work you need to be very result-oriented, you need to put down your ego for the customers, and I don’t think a lot of the men can do it as well as women.”

Liu, for example, has extensive global development experience in both chemical and biologic drugs. Prior to joining Zai Lab, she was the clinical head of the BioVenture group at UK pharma company AstraZeneca and executive medical director for AstraZeneca’s oncology unit.

She played critical roles in establishing joint ventures for biologics development and was responsible for global clinical development programs and regulatory strategy and submissions. She has participated in many international licensing deals.

Liu has a medical degree from the Shanghai Medical College at Fudan University and a PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Georgia in the US.

She did a post-doctoral fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and a medical oncology and hematology fellowship at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she was also an assistant professor.

Wu’s experience is also impressive, ranging from clinical medicine and medical research to finance and entrepreneurship. As managing director of life science investment firm Burrill & Company, she led its operation in China and focused on venture capital investing in the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

Wu served on the boards of listed companies such as Taiwan Liposome Company, General Biologicals Corporation, and JHL Biotech. She also worked as acting chief operating officer of Waterstone Pharmaceuticals, a specialty drug company with key operations in China. She is also a founding member of the China Healthcare Investment Conference.

A Chinese proverb states that “women hold up half the sky”, which can be applied to the three female executives helping Zai Lab evolve from a small startup in 2013 to a company that recently secured $100 million for its second-round financing.

In August 2014, a newly minted Zai Lab announced its deal with another “big pharma” company, Sanofi, for two of its preclinical compounds for the treatment of chronic respiratory diseases. A few days later, the company received $30 million financing from global investors.

Despite all this experience and success, there are certain pros and cons of being a women entrepreneur in a male-dominated field.

“I have to be more efficient, and for that, men respect me. I like organizing and coming up with new ideas,” said Du.

“But overall I still don’t think being a female is advantageous because you have to always go beyond the (usual) level, so men would look up to you as a role model.”

Balancing between work and family is probably the most important thing for Du, and she was lucky to have good role models when she was a child.

“I grew up with a lot of siblings and both of my parents worked,” said Du. “My mother would still take care of everything in the house and I think that concept has passed down to my generation as well.

“I’m always thinking in the back of my head how much time I can spend on work, and I always ask myself — is this meeting that important? Or can I go home and be with my family?”

Of course you have to sacrifice certain things, she added.

“If you don’t socialize, you’ll distance yourself from the networks but you can make it up with being smarter and more innovative.”

The overall representation of women in all lines of work in China is very strong compared with many other Asian countries. The Chinese mainland ranked first in the Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia 2014 report released by Community Business.

The average representation of women at senior levels was the highest in the Chinese mainland among the six regions the research covers, which also include: Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Japan. Women make up around 36 percent of senior level positions in the Chinese mainland.

The Chinese government has been pushing gender equality and supporting women entrepreneurs through multiple policies.

Last September, the State Council held a media briefing in Beijing on women’s social development. The white paper titled “Gender Equality and Women’s Development in China” released at the conference noted that among all Chinese Internet-related business entrepreneurs, 55 percent are female.

Since 2009, the People’s Bank of China has been issuing small loans of between 50,000 yuan ($7,600) and 80,000 yuan to female entrepreneurs.

Up to last September, the bank had released loans worth 220 billion yuan that helped 5 million female entrepreneurs start their own businesses, as well as 10 million associated female employments.


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