Exclusive interview: John Oyler, BioDuro


John Oyler has founded a string of startups in the US, including Genta, a biotech specializing in cancer drug discovery, and Galenea, which focuses on treatments for psychiatric diseases. But in 2005 he chose China as his base to launch BioDuro, a life sciences Contract Research Organisation (CRO). He explains to Chemistry World  how he has managed to turn BioDuro into one of China’s leading CROs in just three years.

Why did you choose to launch a CRO in China rather than the US?

In the US over the last five years, the big pharmaceutical companies and venture capital firms have cut investment in the longer-term, riskier preclinical research that is likely to lead to truly innovative therapies. 

On the other hand, building a CRO in the emerging Chinese market allows us to be involved in all stages of the research, from the basic idea to the clinical trial.

When I was CEO of Galenea about a quarter of our researchers were from India and a third from China. This made me realise that China could supply exceptionally capable scientists. 

So my old friend and business partner Masood Tayebi and I launched and financed BioDuro. Funding our business ourselves allowed us to pursue the opportunities that we thought were the most important.

John Oyler, founder of BioDuro

John Oyler’s BioDuro is already one of China’s leading Contract Research Organisations (CROs)

© BioDuro

But why did you choose Beijing, when the main clients of CROs - the big   multinational drug firms - have their R&D centres in Shanghai?

There are exceptionally talented scientists in Beijing. It has world class universities and research institutes, like Peking and Tsinghua universities, Peking Union Medical College, the National Institute of Biological Sciences, the National Center for the Safety Evaluation of Drugs, and the related institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

R&D centres, which only do some of big pharma’s drug development work, are not the only source of business. Most of our contracts are from their US and European headquarters. And because there are fewer research organisations and CROs in Beijing, there is more chemistry and biology talent available to draw on.

By the end of this year, we will have nearly 600 chemists and biologists working for the company. Most of the world’s top pharmaceutical firms are our clients. We have our business and marketing headquarters in San Diego, California. We have a team of more than 20 senior scientists leading the firm, many of whom used to be at multinationals like Merck and Pfizer.

Is it easy to attract top scientists to China? 

Most are overseas Chinese who had long wanted to contribute the scientific development of their home country once there were suitable opportunities. And I am always on a mission to persuade the best scientist join us.

One example is a senior scientist at Merck - Steven Hutchins. I first met him when he gave a talk  [in the US] about life science development. Then, after his talk we had a long talk and he saw that our work here was aligned with his vision. Later, after we met in China, he decided to join us. Likewise Jason Zhang joined us recently from Neurocrine in San Diego where he has watched us grow over the last few years. Jason returned for the opportunity [to work for BioDuro], but also to be closer to his parents and family. For the senior scientists, they understand that there may be more responsibility and better research opportunities in China.

Multinationals choose Chinese CROs to keep costs down, but you have spent a lot of money hiring scientists and establishing facilities. Do you still have the cost advantage?

First I would say big pharma is not entirely driven by costs. It also depends on the quality of work you can offer and whether they want an integrated solution or simply some easy research.

The cost of doing research here can be a third to a quarter of that in the US or Europe. Sure - BioDuro will not be the cheapest option, but we have already established a strong reputation for providing integrated solutions, creative problem solving, adhering to environmental, health, and safety standards, and exceeding client expectations.

But the best thing about doing research in China is the scientists. They have a real thirst for knowledge, and an incredibly humble, yet can-do approach to challenges. There is nothing that they cannot learn and no challenge that cannot be overcome.

I think all of these factors stimulate multinational pharmaceuticals to engage in contract research in China - not costs alone.

Hepeng Jia