Issue Date: October 31, 2011
Shanghai Institute Of Organic Chemistry Boosts Industry Ties
Sitting in his 100-sq-ft office piled high with academic journals and documents on a Friday afternoon, professor Wen Liu clicks through PowerPoint slides describing his lab’s recent breakthroughs in the syntheses of antibiotic compounds. Liu’s office in downtown Shanghai, though, is just a way station for the breakthroughs. They will move on to a recently built compound 90 miles away, where Liu has set up a different team to explore ways of applying his lab’s findings to the production of pharmaceuticals.
Liu has a typical academic role at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry—one of China’s premier chemical research institutions, affiliated with the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences—and he also heads an enterprise in the nearby city of Huzhou, providing technological support for pharmaceutical companies. Established in July 2010, the Huzhou Biomanufacturing Innovation Center is a joint venture between SIOC and the local government. The center aims to improve the cost-effectiveness of antibiotics production. By analyzing results produced at Liu’s SIOC lab, scientists at the center cultivate new strains of bacteria that can be used to produce improved versions of antibiotics. So far, according to Liu, many Chinese drug manufacturers have expressed interest in the approach, even though the Huzhou project itself is still at a preliminary stage. In one of its biggest deals so far, SIOC sold antibiotic-producing strains developed at the center to Henan Topfond Pharmaceutical, a domestically listed company, for more than $1.5 million.
But revenues from the Huzhou project make up only a small percentage of the Liu group’s annual budget at SIOC. “So far, we are still largely supported by various national funds,” says Liu, 41, who joined the institute in 2003, returning to China from a research position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Liu’s SIOC lab currently has 22 graduate students and staff members and an annual budget of just over $300,000.
Liu is emblematic of a group of principal investigators at SIOC who are taking on more entrepreneurial roles on the side. Known in China for its long-standing connections with industry, SIOC garners about 30% of its research budget through its cooperation with companies, including patent authorizations and sales. The institute’s annual research budget is currently estimated at $9.4 million. In 2003, it sold 70% of its stock in Shanghai Synica Co.—a company SIOC had jointly established in 2000—for a total of $16.4 million. The institute plowed the bulk of the proceeds into constructing its main lab building, which opened in 2004.
With the help of Liu and others, SIOC is now looking to build upon its traditional industrial ties, says professor Kuiling Ding, the institute’s director. The Huzhou project is just one of the first steps that SIOC is taking toward bringing new technologies to the market. “For a long time, our collaborations [with industry] have been limited to relatively small projects,” Ding says. “But now we are seeking to work on a much larger scale. Not only do we want to be paid by the project, but we also want to be able to share patent rights with the companies.”
One such example is offered by professor Yong Tang’s lab. Since joining SIOC as a principal investigator in 1999, Tang has been focusing on the synthesis of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene and looking for a viable way to commercialize the process. After 11 years of development, Tang’s group sold their full-fledged polyethylene synthesis technology last November. Jiujiang Xinxing Fiberglass Material Co., located in the inland province of Jiangxi, bought the technology for an estimated $3.9 million, a large price tag compared with the Tang lab’s average patent sales revenue of less than $300,000 per patent.
“I think it’s important to see how much more valued a technology is when we push it a step further toward industrialization,” says Tang, who is now a deputy director of SIOC and head of the institute’s State Key Laboratory of Organometallic Chemistry. “Besides basic research, which has always been our foremost goal at SIOC, we are also committed to finding ways to expose our technologies to the market.”
Since the deal with Jiujiang Xinxing last November, Tang’s group has teamed up with the company to set up a factory in Jiangxi province to manufacture products made with the polyethylene. “Assembly lines at the new factory are already over capacity, thanks to the increasing demand,” Tang says. “Business is booming.”
Perhaps influenced by the institute’s growing entrepreneurial push, SIOC’s graduates are increasingly considering corporate jobs instead of staying in academia. “Seven or eight years ago, the majority of our graduates would end up going abroad for postdoctoral research,” Ding says. Now about half of them choose to work in companies based in China. There are many reasons for that trend, Ding says, but pragmatism has played an increasing role in students’ career choices. That’s become especially true as many of them are faced with mounting financial pressures to make a living in China’s costly coastal cities, he notes.
“Nowadays, more of our graduates are willing to join private companies or even try to start their own companies after working for a few years,” says professor Dawei Ma, a deputy director at SIOC who oversees graduate admissions, noting that earlier graduates, by contrast, would favor well-known international companies. “It’s a good thing that our students have become more flexible in choosing careers,” says Ma, who adds that many opportunities have emerged in China’s small and medium-sized companies in recent years.
SIOC’s industry ties are not the only thing that sets it apart from other top chemistry institutions in China. It also makes publishing scientific papers voluntary for its graduate students. In other words, a student doesn’t have to have anything published in a peer-reviewed journal in order to graduate from the institute. This goes against the norm among top Chinese institutions, where academic publications are sometimes viewed as the single most important criterion for students and teachers alike. But Ding says the policy doesn’t lessen the students’ academic pressure as much as outsiders may suspect. “Many of them, especially if they are really interested in research, will have had papers published anyway,” he says. “We’ve never had to worry about that.”
And the institute actively encourages its students to study abroad. SIOC recently adopted a plan to reward some of its best graduates by sponsoring their postdoctoral studies at the world’s top labs. Last year, when the plan was first enacted, six SIOC graduates were each given a fellowship of $30,000, provided by a fund jointly created by SIOC and a private pharmaceutical company in China. The fellowship, Ding says, provided his top students with a considerable edge when competing against some of the world’s best Ph.D. graduates in the same fields. Recipients are under no obligation to work for SIOC after completing their postdoctoral programs or anytime in the future.
“I just want our students—and prospective students as well—to know that this is a very realistic possibility,” Ding says. “But only if they work hard for it.” ◾
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