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22 November, 2018 - 10:01 By Judith Gaskell

Abcam hails China as ‘greatest life science opportunity in our lifetime’

BioMedTech figureheads have spelled out the potential payback power of an expertly curated Cambridge UK-China life science axis.

Alan Hirzel, CEO of quoted Cambridge life science business Abcam – one of the cluster’s 16 unicorns – said the company saw China “as the greatest single opportunity for the life sciences market in our life times.”

Cambridge University biotech thought leader Professor Christopher Lowe echoed the incredible progress made in China, while adding a caveat about the need to hone certain elements of the IP proposition.

The ringing endorsement of a lucrative new trade highway for the UK emerged from one of the key sessions at the inaugural Cambridge China Forum at the Guildhall.

Hirzel, who is steering a fresh surge of global growth for life science research tool supplier Abacam, said: “We see China s the greatest single opportunity for the life sciences market in our life times.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, but there’s still time.” Hirzel said Abcam made its first sale to China in 2003 and the country now accounted for 15 per cent of its revenue at £35 million.

Chinese policy, major funding and a commitment to bringing improved healthcare to the people who live in China were all helping to drive a significant amount of Chinese innovation, he said.

“My advice is absolutely to go to this market,” Hirzel said – adding that China had shaken off its hackneyed tag as purely a low-cost producer. Those days are over if they were ever around. Go to China with a growth mindset and make sure you’ve got great local talent to work with. It’s been essential for us to have people who are very familiar with a place where there is great talent. There’s a lot of innovation in China and you’ve got to invest in that talent.”

Chairing the session , Dr Li Su, ARUK – senior research Fellow at Cambridge University’s Department of Psychiatry said the size of China alone made it an ideal market for life sciences.  “China has the most patients in the world and is the second largest pharma market after the United States so there’s a huge market there and also an ageing society.”

As people became older in China it puts huge demands on healthcare and the sector requires lots of research, he said

A key word that had been mentioned many times during the Forum was  ‘challenges’ and one challenge was the different ethics between the UK and China.

An opportunity, though, was the amount of money the Chinese government was investing in research. “Investment in research grew 30 times between 1995 and 2013,” he said “China’s generous salaries and lab spaces are also attracting people back to the country. So that might change the situation in a few years.”

Professor Chris Lowe, director of the Cambridge Academy of Therapeutic Sciences, said that on his first visit to China in 1983 there was nothing in the labs, not even benches.

“I’ve been there 10 times since and the quality of the laboratories is second to none,” he said. Despite having better labs and resources than existed in Cambridge he thought it would take “a little bit of time” before the “intellectual quality” of the Chinese life science proposition was right.

As someone who has spent many years working closely with companies both in China and those wanting to do business there, Professor Alan Barrell offered his own advice in the life sciences session.

“Be patient, do your research and understand Chinese culture deeply and never try and do it without having good Chinese partners,” he said. "Enjoy learning about the culture, take your time to do it and develop trust. Once you starting working with Chinese contacts and get to know them they will be your friends for life.”
Artificial Intelligence was another major topic at the Forum, organised by the increasingly influential Cambridge China Centre.

In her keynote speech on AI and Machine Learning, Simone Warren – managing director UKI & Nordics for Alibaba Cloud – said her company was forging ahead in this area, helping companies scale at speed, despite barriers including  cost, security and people skills needed.

“In terms of scale we’re talking about the power of the platform and the ability to run the algorithms that help with logistics,” she said. Singles Day, China’s equivalent to Black Friday, saw about 491,000 transactions per second taking place. It was an event that UK businesses had embraced, with the country being the second biggest exporter to China for the event.

Alibaba Cloud had also created ET (extreme technology) City Brain, which the Chinese city of Hangzhou, was the fist to adopt. ”This looks at optimising public transport in terms of route and trying to reduce congestion, traffic diagnostics and optimisation and can also do things like help develop public security. This isn’t’ technology that’s just like a gadget; it’s about making people’s lives better. It’s really impacting on citizens’ lives.”

Alibaba was also in discussions with the Department for International Trade, which is interested in what had already been achieved in China with Medical Brain, which analyses medical trends.

Dr Steve Marsh, founder and CTO of Cambridge big data company GeoSpock – part of whose focus is smart cities – said the business very much had its eye on China.

“China, which has the biggest number of smart cites on the planet, is a good future play for us,” he said. “We are in the midst of a revolution and the revolution is led by data. That revolution is shifting us away from human generated data to machine generated data.”The company had already worked with Cambridge, Oxford and Liverpool . One of the issues was that many of the smart systems worked in silos.

“Cambridge alone has 85, such as smart street lights, monitoring traffic conditions, and pollution readings I’m Looking forward to the point where we can use machine learning and AI  to keep a city running not just for today but for the future,” Marsh said.

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