There are many famous innovators in the Western world who have a bold vision, go after massively transformative projects and despite investor and public criticism deliver on their promises. Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs are household names who went against the current, pushed their vision through and succeeded touching everyone on the planet and making the world a better place.
Since the passing of Steve Jobs, the crown of the bold inventor, innovator and high-tech businessman passed to Elon Musk who despite frequent criticism is the undisputed leader of disruptive entrepreneurship. However, when I ask some of the most informed westerners in my network to recall one global entrepreneur with an Asian name disrupting their life in the same positive way and at the same scale as Elon, very few can recall anyone besides Jack Ma or Dr. Lee Kai-Fu. Even fewer would be able to name the exact contribution these people made to their health and wellbeing. And few people know that some of these entrepreneurs started companies that act as global open research platforms that assisted in the discovery of many of the cutting-edge life-saving treatments that are benefiting everyone on the planet. There will be books written about the transformative role of these people in the future and, hopefully, Netflix documentaries.
But there are many great innovators and entrepreneurs, who are working on bold new ideas and technologies that will change everyones’ life in a very impactful and positive way but are not known to the general public in the West. These innovators often face criticism from the investor community which wants to see business models and projects that they can understand, projects they can believe and get the immediate returns. Like Elon Musk they face a lot of resistance but over time prevail and will impress every one of us. They will go down in history as pioneers and their names will be known in every household.
As a CEO of a leading technology company serving the healthcare industry I get to speak at almost one scientific or industry conference every week and meet some of these brilliant personalities. In my new article series, “Elon Musk of China” I will try to highlight the individuals who are defying the conventional boundaries and focus on realizing their disruptive vision despite all odds and my first hero will be Wang Jian, the founder of Beijing Genomics Institute (now called BGI and, despite the name, based in Shenzhen, China’s technology hub located over 2000km South of the capital), the largest genomics sequencing facility in the world and the home to the many innovations in life sciences.
BGI is one of the fastest-paced genomics sequencing and diagnosis companies in the world. I visited BGI for the first time in 2012 and met with the co-founder, Henry Yang and his team through the introduction from Charles Cantor, the founder of Sequenom, which fiercely competed with them for the Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) market. Sequenom invented the technology and the market but by the time they launched the test, BGI was already doing over twenty thousand tests a month beating everyone to the market. Back then it was located in three old industrial buildings on the outskirts of Shenzhen but was already one of the most prominent scientific institutions in the world.
In 2018 I visited their new China National GeneBank, which technically belongs to the government but is operated by BGI. I could not believe my eyes. The architectural marvel of steel and concrete sitting at the hillside and overlooking the ocean combines the best features of the Scripps, Sanger and the Buck. Outside there is abundant space for exercise, flamingo gardens, horizontal farming facilities, etc.
Employees do not use elevators unless they need to move heavy machinery, there are pollution sensors everywhere and monitors describing the status of the company. It hosts one of the largest sequencing facilities and data centers in the world. In addition, they have the entire institute dedicated to the study of health and aging. Recently, the Wang Jian, the founder of this amazing place introduced a new concept – he came out and publicly stated that he would like his employees to remain healthy until they are 100 years old. And the employees took this seriously. Most employees consented to being tested in every way and sequenced. They regularly provide physiological test data, sensor data, advanced blood tests, high-resolution MRI imaging, facial imaging, microbiome and cell-free circulating nucleic acid testing. The program looked far more advanced than the prized Google Verily’s baseline project.
Recently, I told this story to one of the people I deeply respect, a prominent Asian entrepreneur and technology investor with extraordinary personality and worldview. He told me that for this exact reason many of the Chinese institutional investors do not like BGI and Wang Jian because they do not understand how these initiatives can convert into revenue and profits. He said that the company is too academic and science-driven and that some of the projects are very hard to understand. Like for example heavy academic publishing and the publication of the rice genome and many other Nature publications. Honestly, I was puzzled by this question and tried to explain that these studies are needed to convince the world that your group is capable of running such mega projects in order to win business and expand into new business areas. I also tried to explain that Wang Jian is the true Elon Musk of China and that he put China on the map in sequencing. But with the exception of Neuralink and Hyperloop, Elon Musk is operating mostly in the industries where the proof of concept was established a long time ago and it is up to incremental innovation, operational efficiency, agile management and creative funding to launch rockets, electric cars, and satellite networks. Biotechnology is orders of magnitude more complex.
To understand this giant scientist and entrepreneur a little bit better I took a trip to BGI and asked him a few questions in person.
1. You managed to build one of the most venerated biotechnology companies and research institutes in the world. How did you manage to do this and what was the critical part which contributed to your success?
BGI was established to represent China to participate and contribute to the Human Genome Project. BGI learned from the success and experience of HGP. The tremendous outcome and impact of HGP has led to revolutionary technology development and scientific discoveries, which further strengthen the confidence of BGI in the future of the genomics industry.
BGI has had 20 years of history, including a strong foundation in scientific research and many successful global partnerships. We have made strategic investments in new technologies, so we can now focus on developing original technology.
BGI wants to lead China’s future model and lead social development. I have this dream. The entire human society has gone through several historical stages of agriculture, animal husbandry, industry, and information. Today, the next stage must be the bio-economy, and this bio-economy is endless from the current perspective.
2. What were the main challenges on your path to success?
In leading development, the biggest challenge facing BGI has been how to adapt to the current era and go beyond this era. The first challenge has been science and technology understanding, which is reflected in lags in understanding and evaluating basic science, application and education. The second challenge has been social humanity understanding, embodied in laws, policies and regulations, and even ethical and moral aspects; there are other challenges we have not yet encountered. In facing these challenges, we have continued to focus on creating benefits for more people.
For example, when BGI first introduced NIFTY (non-invasive prenatal tests) to doctors, it was hard for them to believe that such technology was available. As genomics technology disrupts or replaces some conventional or traditional systems, there may be hesitation or even resistance, and certainly a need for greater education and new policy and regulation implemented.
3. Most of the people I met at BGI are very young. Often without a doctorate from a prestigious university. But they are incredibly smart and productive and manage to publish in Nature, Science and other top journals. When I first visited BGI the average age was 27 and today it is around 31. Even the CEO is very young. How do you find these people and how do they manage to ramp up so quickly in science and business?
In fact, most famous scientists have realized achievements in youth and middle age or have laid a good foundation for scientific achievements. And a new business must be created by people who are full of passion and less restricted in their thinking. This is a necessity.
BGI does not judge people by their background but by their ability. Genomics is a multi-disciplinary science and an emerging field, so those young talents can get the best training and most advanced experience at BGI through participating in real projects.
4. You publicly stated that you want your employees to be healthy and live until they are at least 100. With the average age of 31 it is not such an outrageous statement. What are the chances of this happening in the next 10, 20, 30 years?
When a person is doing something very advanced, it is difficult to convince the community to accept you. If you want to change the world, you must change yourself first, and benefit mankind to benefit yourself. First, we involve nearly 7,000 employees around the practice of their health, illness, aging, and basic necessities of life. We will become a benchmark for the support and leadership in controlling factors that affect our health, birth defects, infections and tumors. Human life and health are fundamental.
The leading role of BGI’s development is fundamental innovation. The core principles are the central dogma of life (the first principle of life science) and instrument determinism.
The central dogma of molecular biology is the most basic law of life science and the principle of science first. Therefore, understanding and interpretation must follow this basic law, that is, interpretation starts from DNA, throughout the whole cycle, micro to macro, and life-long.
Throughout the history of human innovation, tools can precipitate major advances. When we make tools, we must first look at whether we can lead in science, and secondly can we do it cheaply and serve the public. If these two are combined, the mind can be fully liberated and less restricted in terms of applications that can be explored. From this, I came to the conclusion about tool determinism; that is, with tools, we can have core competitiveness.
But to achieve the goal of living a healthy and long life also requires self-discipline. That’s also the challenge for BGI to lead in this new era of life science, starting with BGI employees and families to practice and apply genomics in everyday life. It takes a lot of effort to move from changing a mindset to changing behavior.
5. What projects do you find particularly exciting and rewarding?
There are still many different ways of thinking in life sciences, industrial thinking and business thinking. What is my ultimate pursuit? I must make health and longevity the first priority. At this time, I am more concerned about our contribution to society. The greater the contribution, the greater the return society will naturally give to us. Because it is an integrated balance. BGI’s goal will always be to benefit human beings.
The Elon Musk of Asia series to be continued…
While there is a trade war between the East and the West, resulting in much negative publicity and emotional boundaries, China has leapfrogged through technology in many areas. And it is positively contributing to the global economy in many ways. There are more electric vehicles in China than anywhere else in the world, amazing high-speed trains link all major cities, and the mobile phone serves as the wallet and as a one-stop solution for most of your day-to-day needs. In many areas people do not accept cash substantially reducing corruption and increasing efficiency. The country is rapidly turning from the “me too” and “me better” approach to technology development to “me first”, and “me disrupt”. Many of these innovations will impact everyone on the planet in the most benevolent way. One of the most impactful areas is healthcare. Cancer, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular diseases, and aging in general do not differentiate between the economies, races, or nations. These are the common enemies for every country and for every individual. In my following articles I will continue profiling the most brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs from Greater China, Korea, and Thailand, who are accelerating the rate of progress in healthcare and saving the lives worldwide.