Not for profit, but for the greater good
The decision to study biopharmaceutical science at Jilin University 35 years ago was not hers to make, but Du Ying can now look back and thank her father for his insistence in this matter.
Since giving up her aspiration of becoming an architect to fulfill her father’s wishes, Du has gone on to achieve great heights in the biopharmaceutical industry.
After graduating from Jilin University in Northeast China’s Jilin province, Du went on to obtain her doctorate degree in biochemistry at the University of Cincinnati before joining world-leading pharmaceutical company Pfizer in 1994. There, she was part of the team that developed an antibiotics drug which is still widely used by children in the United States today.
But Du was not content with what she had achieved at Pfizer. In the early 2000s, she noticed that Shanghai was ramping up efforts to attract more multinational companies and decided to return to her homeland to capitalize on the opportunities.
In 2001, the Chinese American left Pfizer to set up Hutchison MediPharma and Hutchison China MediTech Limited which went public on the Nasdaq in 2016.
Again, Du wanted more. In 2014, when she was already 50, Du decided to set up another company, Zai Lab (Shanghai) Co Ltd, to focus on the research and development of transformative medicines for cancer, autoimmune and infectious diseases which were uncommon in China.
In just four years, Zai Lab developed six drugs that are now at the third stage of clinical testing under Chinese regulations. One of these drugs is already being sold in the US and Europe and is expected to be approved for sale in Hong Kong in October.
In September last year, Zai Lab went public on the Nasdaq, with a total financing of over $170 million.
Du explained that transformative medicine is very costly in terms of research and development. However, her determination to produce such drugs stems not from a desire for profit but knowing how they could benefit patients.
“Drugs used to treat liver and gastric cancer are considered to be ‘orphan drugs’ in China because such diseases have low incidence rates in other countries and leading pharmaceutical companies would hence spend little to develop them,” she said.
“But China’s research and
“As an entrepreneur, integrity is of the utmost importance. He or she should always set a good example to others.”
development sector has evolved so quickly over the past few years that we now have the ability to develop such drugs. I felt it was my responsibility to do so.”
But success has not come easy. Du still remembers how the early days of running her own business was difficult because of a shortage of personnel, materials and financing. There were times when she would break down into tears in the privacy of her home. Despite the setbacks, Du managed to derive motivation whenever her research progressed to another level.
“Someone once defined me as the pioneer of the transformative medicines industry. But I’ve never liked this description. I was never obsessed with the idea of having power or managing a huge team. What interests me the most and guides me is creating new things, be it new products or new business models. I do not want to follow the road set by others,” she said.
This approach, she said, probably stems from her extensive reading of world history.
“There is a saying widely used by authors of Chinese historical books that ‘the times produce their own heroes’. But after reading all these books, it dawned on me that there are hardly any people who can change the society they are living in. So this is a question left to many of the CEOs now: can we create a new industry even when there is little support from society?” she said.
When Du left China to further her studies in the US in the 1980s, her father gifted her two plates carved with traditional Chinese sayings about perseverance and integrity. These plates, which can now be found at the highest corner of the bookshelf in her office, have also played a role in molding Du into the woman she is today.
“As an entrepreneur, integrity is of the utmost importance. He or she should always set a good example to others. As we are in the medical sector, we should likewise always try our best to cure and save patients. This is where our integrity lies,” she said.