Ge Li - WuXi PharmaTech

Changing the face of Chinese R&D

Name: Ge Li
Title: CEO, WuXi PharmaTech

Keeping up with WuXi PharmaTech ($WX) is like watching the history of biopharma in fast-forward. The company, China's largest CRO, began by hiring thousands of chemists, reportedly becoming the largest employer of small molecule-focused scientists in the world. Then WuXi expanded its focus to biologics, opening complex manufacturing facilities around China and becoming the nation's first maker of large-molecule therapies to meet Western standards. And now the company is spending big to scale up its capabilities in genomics, keeping up with industry trends while expanding around the globe.

Behind WuXi's all-encompassing embrace of drug development is Ge Li, a U.S.-educated chemist who co-founded the company 15 years ago and steered it to a U.S. IPO in 2007. In the beginning, companies like WuXi and its rival ChemPartner were largely outlets for biopharma arbitrage, providing scientific services at a fraction of what they'd cost in Europe or the U.S. 

But Li, observing radical changes in China's technological prowess, wanted to evolve his company into a one-stop shop for world-class R&D, competing not just on price but on quality. And, with China's rapidly modernizing healthcare system making the country a growing target for drugmakers, WuXi worked to position itself as gatekeepers to a complicated market.

That meant spending money and poaching talent. Since going public, WuXi has acquired more than a dozen companies large and small to build out its suite of services, beginning with its $151 million deal for local competitor AppTec in 2008 and continuing with regular takeouts of complementary outfits. And the CRO has been steadily picking off leaders from Western R&D giants, last year recruiting former AstraZeneca ($AZN) head of Asian research Steve Yang to join a team that includes veterans of Merck ($MRK), Medtronic ($MDT) and Eli Lilly ($LLY). All the while, WuXi has strived to keep close ties with Western innovators, launching joint ventures with MedImmune and CRO giant PRA Health Sciences ($PRAH).

Now WuXi employs more than 9,000 people across 21 R&D outposts around the world, steadily growing in hopes of reaching Li's oft-repeated goal: "to build an open-access capability and technology platform that enables anyone and any company discover and develop therapeutic products to benefit patients."

While there's more than a little industry jargon in that credo, it illustrates Li's guiding ethos with WuXi. The CEO believes lowering the barriers to entry in R&D would help unlock innovation in his native China, helping giving rise to a generation of Asian biotechs. At the same time, shepherding Western drugmakers into the country would improve access to medicines. And WuXi, of course, would be there to reap the benefits, playing a role in every aspect of the drug development process as biopharma becomes more and more global.

It's an audacious plan, but, considering it took just 15 years for Li to take WuXi from a four-employee startup to an international player, it might not be so far-fetched.

-- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)

For more:
WuXi buys big into genomics with NextCODE deal
WuXi reaches into the biopharma hubs of Boston and San Francisco
WuXi ups its revenue ambitions after M&A and expansion
WuXi snags a stateside CRO to beef up its early-stage services

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Ge Li - WuXi PharmaTech