In 2019, AstraZeneca China launched the I-Campus – a health-tech incubator – in collaboration with the Wuxi local government. Here Michael Lai, General Manager of AstraZeneca China, talks more about the project and China’s growing healthcare sector
What is the I-Campus exactly?
I·Campus is a one-stop incubation platform for life science innovation companies. It will land, incubate, accelerate, and scale up both domestic and overseas life science companies with support from government, industry, academia, research institutes, medical institutions and capital.
Jointly managed by Wuxi Municipal Government, Wuxi National Hi-tech District and AstraZeneca, the I·Campus plans to leverage AstraZeneca’s global network, its strong relationship with local government, and its commercial platform.
AstraZeneca has always been dedicated to building an open, collaborative, and international innovation ecosystem to promote patient-centric innovations. On April 28 this year, we welcomed 10 innovative domestic and overseas companies to move in and start business operations in I·Campus.
I·Campus will provide domestic and overseas market insights, product concept validation, cooperation opportunities for commercial innovations, licensing, co-promotion, and contracted sales through AstraZeneca’s end-to-end commercial platform.
It will also facilitate these incubator companies’ international expansion by using AstraZeneca’s global network to support Chinese companies to go abroad and international companies to enter the Chinese market.
The companies at I·Campus will also have access to investment from the billion-dollar Global Healthcare Industrial Fund co-founded by AstraZeneca, China International Capital Corporation and other capital partners.
I·Campus has five strategic partners, ten AstraZeneca overseas joint innovation centres, 17 resident companies, and expects to host over 50 innovative enterprises within the next three years.
The long term plan is for I·Campus, along with China Healthcare IoT Innovation Center, and the Healthcare Industrial Fund, to create a huge engine, promoting healthcare sharing and connectivity in both China and globally.
How has the pharma and medical supplies business changed in China in recent years?
The Chinese government has been using a systematic approach to resolve the huge demand for better healthcare service and is taking steps towards its goal of providing people with access to affordable modern healthcare services.
For example, in recent years, China’s central government has announced a series of healthcare reforms to establish a basic, universal healthcare system that can provide safe, effective, convenient and low-cost health services. The reform affects most facets of healthcare delivery, including health insurance, primary care, hospital management, medications and public health.
Policies released by the government have removed hurdles to allow new medicines and the benefits of health innovations to reach more Chinese patients faster. The Chinese government is also taking effective measures to improve the speed of new drug approval. For example, establishing a ‘green channel’ for innovative drugs, and accelerating the review for urgently needed drugs. This will help global pharmaceutical companies to significantly shorten the time-to-market interval of innovative drugs at home and abroad to better meet clinical needs and drug accessibility.
What has become easier, harder or not changed as you might have hoped or expected?
In the past few years, the investment environment in China has been increasingly open, and the business environment in China is improving. These changes provide multinational companies with vast space for their development in China. AstraZeneca entered China in 1993, and now China has become AstraZeneca’s second-largest market in the world.
The continuous growth of AstraZeneca’s business in China benefits from the Chinese government’s on-going opening-up policy, optimisation of the business environment, and protection of foreign investment in China. All these have helped us better serve Chinese patients with innovative drugs and solutions and realise better business growth.
China has made significant achievements in improving people’s life and health during the past years in various aspects. Take the ‘Healthy China 2030’ Initiative for example. There have been major reforms going on in the industry during the past years as the government has sought ways to increase the fairness, affordability and accessibility of medical and healthcare services for its people, and encouraged companies to provide better products and services as well.
The recent Covid-19 virus will certainly shift the nature of healthcare in China. What major changes can we expect going forward?
This unique period that has affected every country on earth so badly, requires international cooperation in the field of life sciences, and the quick development of digital technology to enable further collaboration across sectors.
The growing demands on the healthcare industry have provided new opportunities in digital healthcare, industrial integration and internationalisation.
We’ve already seen a trend in China to accelerate the transformation of the healthcare industry by focusing on holistic disease management supported by smart healthcare.
The epidemic will certainly accelerate this transformation and the Chinese government has put an emphasis on online medical care, especially for chronic disease management. I believe the evolving connections between healthcare and cutting-edge technologies such as big data, AI and IoT, will make more innovative practices in healthcare a reality.
Will this provide new opportunities for AstraZeneca and others in this field?
The growing healthcare demand brought by the epidemic is sure to bring further opportunities for the healthcare industry as a whole. And as a truly local MNC here in China, AstraZeneca will seize the opportunity to benefit more patients in China and worldwide.
For the increasing need for smart healthcare, we are expanding cooperations regarding digitalised promotion, retail pharmacy marketing, as well as collaborations with internet healthcare platforms and e-commerce platforms to guarantee drug supply and holistic disease management for our patients.
We have partnered with cross-sector forces to promote online pharmaceutical retail, hospital appointment registration, online diagnosis and prescription. These practices can guarantee the accessibility of drugs to our patients, but at the same time prevent them from the risk of getting cross-infected while they are at the hospital.
We also believe that people will now be more willing to embrace big data, 5G, AI and IoT as well as other new-generation technologies, which will provide opportunities for life science innovation here in China. AstraZeneca has also joined the efforts in accelerating innovations in those areas – hoping to contribute to the upgrading of healthcare services in China and facilitating to the realisation of “Healthy China 2030”.
One of the challenges facing British businesses in this industry is the length of time it takes to get product registration. Is this something that you have encountered and has the virus led to new legislation that might speed this up?
The Chinese government has been optimising and speeding up the approval process for imported drugs and new drugs by creating a green channel for first-class innovative drugs and accelerating the evaluation on urgently-needed drugs for patients, thus enabling Chinese patients to use the world’s leading innovative drugs as soon as possible.
For AstraZeneca, our innovative oncology drug, Tagrisso, was approved within only seven months in 2017. Last year, Roxadustat, China’s ‘global first’ innovative drug treating patients with renal anaemia, was also approved by the NMPA through priority review. As we’ve seen Chinese government efforts in bringing in global innovative drugs for Chinese patients more quickly, we are expecting another 55 approvals for new drugs and new indications in the near future.
Intellectual Property and forced technology transfer is also still a concern in this sector. How do you negotiate these challenges with the government, local partners and so on, and how do you protect your business?
Actually, we have witnessed the improvement of Innovation and IP protection having been encouraged by the Chinese government. In recent years the Chinese government has released several policies regarding strengthening the protection on intellectual property to encourage innovation.
We are encouraged by the government’s innovation-driven development strategy and believe that a continued focus on IP protection will only encourage more investment, collaboration and ultimately benefit patients and society. Adhering to our patient-centric core value, AstraZeneca is committed to accelerating the introduction of our pioneering medicines into China. We will are also dedicated to improving China’s R&D capabilities and introducing innovative medicines developed by our partners from China and overseas.
Michael Lai began his career as a medical doctor in the US, and then as a management consultant serving at the Boston Consulting Group in Shanghai. In 2010 he joined Sanofi to become Head of Strategic Planning for Asia, where he led the development of the “Next Billion Consumers” country market strategy. He subsequently went on to become the Head of Biosurgery BU and VP of Oncology BU. Prior to joining AstraZeneca China as VP, Head of Cardiovascular, Renal and Metabolic Diseases (CVRM) Business Unit in June 2017, he was VP of Sanofi China’s Diabetes BU. Michael holds a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) from the University of California, San Francisco, a Master of Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley and a Bachelor of Art in Biological Sciences from Harvard University.