When Samantha Du was in graduate school in the US, starting her own company was a dream she didn’t even know she had.
➤ Title: CEO, Zai Lab
➤ Total value of Zai Lab: $3.4 billion
➤ Select investors: Qiming Venture Partners and OrbiMed Advisors
It was the 1990s, and she was focused on becoming a scientist in industry so that she could help sick people. “I was intrigued by Pfizer at the time—I could see my scientific discoveries turn into treatments,” Du says. “I didn’t even know what entrepreneur meant.”
Fast-forward 2 decades, and Du is one of the most notable and accomplished entrepreneurs in China. She’s built more than one company from scratch, the latest being Zai Lab, and worked as an investor herself. She’s a mentor and a role model. She takes risks, her colleagues tell C&EN, but her risks are calculated.
Samantha Du grows up in Jilin Province, China, with a family that supports her decision to become a scientist. “You have to always be curious about what you do,” she says.
She finishes her PhD at the University of Cincinnati in the US and joins Pfizer where, over 7 years, she rises to become the head of global metabolic licensing.
Du is recruited by the company Hutchison Whampoa to help launch Hutchison MediPharma, a biopharma company. “I was in my mid-30s,” Du says of the desire to leave the stability of big pharma. “I like a challenge.”
She decides to try her hand at investment, joining Sequoia Capital, where she seeks out companies that want to “bring the best care to patients.” She stays for about 2 years.
Du starts Zai Lab in 2014 after realizing that there are few companies based in China that develop drugs from scratch. Today, she says that the unmet need and the desire to build a first-in-class drug company are what drive her. She thinks Zai Lab is the last company she’ll start but admits, “You never know.”
In the eyes of experts watching China’s health-care landscape, Du is special. Not only is she touted by industry watchers as the woman who helped bring biotech to China, but she is also nicknamed Big Sister because she has used her position to guide other biotech and life sciences entrepreneurs to set up shop there. China has long been known as a manufacturing behemoth for generic drugs and the home of many a contract research organization. But Du wants Zai Lab, founded in 2014 and headquartered in Shanghai, to be known as a powerhouse in discovering top-of-the-line drugs that people in her country will have access to.
“She is a true trailblazer,” says Wendy Pan, a life sciences attorney who has known Du for many years. A professional organization for leaders of Chinese heritage that Pan and Du belong to, BayHelix, recently gave Du a lifetime achievement award. “Samantha’s success sends a strong message: women can do it and do it successfully,” Pan says.
After earning her PhD from the University of Cincinnati, Du worked at Pfizer bringing antibiotics to market. In 2001, after 7 years at Pfizer, she moved back to China with her young family to help the multinational conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa build its drug discovery branch. The company she built, Hutchison MediPharma, developed multiple cancer drugs that were in clinical trials by the time she left.
Next, she spent 2 years at the multinational firm Sequoia Capital as a venture capitalist, specializing in investments in China. During her tenure there, she realized that China needed more company builders and that entrepreneurship was once again calling to her.
Nisa Leung, a managing partner and health-care investor at Qiming Venture Partners, says that when she first talked to Du about what would become Zai Lab, she thought the way Du wanted to build the company was spot on. Du’s plan was to first license clinically advanced drugs for late-stage cancer treatment and bring them to market quickly in China, then use those profits to fund her first love, drug discovery.
There was a gold rush to follow her business model.
“Once she started licensing one or two really interesting assets, hundreds of companies started to do the same thing,” Leung says.
Du says that zài (再) means “once again to reach the pinnacle.” If the pinnacle is getting drugs to market, Zai is on its way there. A drug for recurrent ovarian cancer was approved for use in China at the end of 2019. An electricity-based treatment for glioblastoma is also well on its way to approvals. And a drug for HER2+ breast cancer is in Phase III trials. All of Zai Lab’s drugs in late-stage testing came through licensing deals. The company is still building its internal drug development pipeline.
China is now the number 2 drug market in the world, Leung says. How Zai Lab progresses, and how Du continues to steer this ship, has an entire world on watch.
“I can’t think of a better leader to lead those different levels of transformation than Samantha,” Leung says. “She is a very visionary leader.”