Kendall Squared brings you dispatches from the world’s epicenter for biotechnology and drug discovery.
American and European biopharma companies have been eyeing China as a market for their drugs for years. Now, some Chinese companies are eyeing the West — as a prime target for making deals and forging partnerships.
Those Chinese companies are beginning to pop up in Kendall Square, and across the biotech hub of greater Boston.
WuXi AppTec, which runs studies and designs clinical trials for biopharma customers, opened an office in Kendall Square a year ago. Drug maker Simcere Pharmaceutical Group unveiled its Boston office in December. And there’s a life sciences and biomedical center in the works at an office park for Chinese companies now in development in Marlborough, Mass.
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The influx of Chinese firms reflects several trends, analysts and company executives say: The Chinese biopharma industry has matured to the point where companies can think about setting up offshoots abroad. They have a desire to be closer to their American partners. They’re on the lookout for deals. And they are eager to tap into the world’s largest pharmaceutical market at a time when their previously red-hot domestic economy has shown signs of slowing.
“It’s part of the evolution of companies and where they are in terms of their revenue cycle,” said Fabio La Mola, a senior principal in the Singapore office of IMS Consulting Group, a global health care consultancy.
As with the rest of the company’s 10,000 employees around the world, the dozen or so people working in WuXi’s office in Kendall aren’t hunting for drug candidates or moving their own molecules through preclinical tests. The company launched in 2000 with a mission to perform other companies’ bench chemistry experiments.
Just as textile and manufacturing plants moved their production lines overseas, biopharma companies outsourced many of their initial studies to this type of contract research organization to save money.
WuXi still conducts plenty of basic chemistry and biology research for its customers, which include most major biopharma companies, but it has also broadened its services. It now manufactures biologic drugs, creates the personalized cells used in cell therapy clinical trials, and, largely through acquisitions, has branched into medical devices.
“We have not moved away from the traditional services,” said WuXi Chief Operating Officer Steve Yang. “The other new stuff we’re doing is really a natural extension and expansion of what we do.”
The company has also built up its genomics services, in part through its purchase of NextCODE Health last year. Now known as WuXi NextCODE, the company analyzes genetic information to help doctors diagnose rare diseases. It also opens its genomic database to researchers in some cases.
“We have this ability to bridge the gap between the US and China” by introducing technology developed in one country to the other, said Hannes Smarason, the chief operating officer of WuXi NextCODE.
WuXi opened its office in Cambridge last February to bring staff closer to the pharmaceutical giants and tiny biotechs that fill the Boston area. Many of those companies are just a short walk from the WuXi office. The company has several other locations in the United States, but executives said it’s helpful to have managers here because they can work directly with local companies to design their studies. For these customers, time zones are no longer a factor.
“We felt our presence here would help foster that innovation further,” said Richard Soll, a WuXi senior vice president who leads the Cambridge office.
WuXi and other Chinese companies offer another vital service to American and European companies: helping them get their drugs into the burgeoning Chinese market.
Even if a drug is already approved in the United States, Chinese regulators require local clinical trials before they will allow it on the market — a process that’s easier when done with a Chinese partner, executives and analysts say.
For its part, Simcere opened its office in Boston last year to gain more access to “the most active market for innovative drugs” in the world, said Sean Wuxiong Cao, vice president of global business development. Having a location here will help the company, which is affiliated with three business incubators in China, identify startups that might want to get a toehold in Asia.
Simcere is also on the lookout for small to midsize companies with promising drugs; it’s hoping to acquire the rights to some up-and-coming products with an eye toward bringing them to market in China.
The new operation in Boston also reflects Simcere’s aggressive push to develop its own research programs and partnerships with global pharma companies.
“We have a war chest that is big enough that it is giving us some leeway,” Cao said.
Analysts say more large Chinese companies will likely push into the United States in coming years. But plenty is happening in China as well: The Chinese government has also emphasized building its own biotech ecosystem, with a particular focus on Shanghai.
As Rick Panicucci, a WuXi vice president, said about the budding Shanghai biotech scene, “It has the very same feel that Cambridge did in 1994.”