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Volume 39, Issue 2
Pharm Exec profiles Dr. Xiaobin Wu, an accomplished leader in helming China operations at big pharmas such as Pfizer and Bayer, who believes his recent jump to biotech as GM of China and president of BeiGene will deliver his most lasting legacy.
Applying lessons gained along a prolific path in the pharma industry, including 17 years leading China operations at multinational big pharmas, Xiaobin Wu believes his jump to biotech as GM of China and president of BeiGene will deliver his most lasting career impact
Dr. Xiaobin Wu has been general manager of China and president of BeiGene, Ltd. since the end of April 2018. With more than 25 years in the industry, like many executives who make the move to biotech, Wu has deep roots in traditional pharma. Prior to his most recent appointment, he was the country manager of Pfizer China and the regional president of Pfizer Essential Health for Greater China from October 2009 to last April;
president and managing director of Wyeth China and Hong Kong from August 2004 to October 2009; and served in increasing roles of responsibility with Bayer, where Wu started his career in 1992 in sales and marketing in Germany. He received advanced degrees-a masters in molecular biology and PhD in biochemistry and pharmacology-at the University of Konstanz in Germany.
“When I came to Germany in the early ’80s, it was very rare for professors to see a Chinese student. I remember very clearly the first time one of them met me, he almost fell from his chair,” explains Wu. The young scientist began to understand that China itself was a mystery to most people in the West, but it didn’t hold him back from his studies. And while Wu successfully progressed along the science track, he admits that it wasn’t his true calling. “I worked very hard. I was published, but I looked at my colleagues in the laboratory and they were much better than I was,” says Wu. That was when he made the decision to alter his career pathway and take his scientific education directly to Bayer.
There, too, Wu believes he was the only Chinese national working in an area of Germany near Switzerland. “There were not many Chinese people in that region,” he says. Wu applied his PhD expertise directly to his role with physicians. “I could speak their language and articulate the science very well to them.” Within three years, Wu was promoted into Bayer’s central marketing and in charge of multiple brands.
In 1996, the big pharma asked Wu to lead its co-founded joint initiative in China as marketing head, where, subsequently, he became general manager for Bayer Healthcare in China. “Bayer has been there from the very beginning of the modern China pharmaceutical industry,” says Wu. “It is a very significant company in the country.” (see here)
In 2003, Wu was approached by a smaller American drugmaker, Wyeth, to become its GM in China. The
company assured him he would be a perfect fit, but Wu was not easily swayed. “Although they told me I would be working with nutrition and could learn OTC (over-the-counter), it was a smaller company. Why would I want to move? I was not convinced,” he says.
The courting period lasted a year, and Wu was swayed when a friend told him that although he had a proven track record with European companies, he didn’t have experience with a US one. “If you want to have success in industry, you have to work for a US company,” Wu recalls of his friend’s advice. “I realized it was the missing piece of the puzzle. I wanted that different experience working with a US company.”
Wu took over Wyeth China and was headquartered in Shanghai for five years. He looks back at this time period as a turnaround situation. Wyeth, he says, was not in good shape in China, but the company grew its business there from $70 million to $800 million during that timeframe. “It was all in infant formula. But I did learn a lot,” says Wu.
In 2009, Pfizer acquired Wyeth, and as they merged the companies, Pfizer named Wu GM of the combined group in China. “The Pfizer leadership was very focused and challenged with bringing a good pharmaceutical company to China and to become an even better company and moving quite fast to do so,” says Wu. Programs transitioned to Wu and his colleagues included large-scale ones such as the nationwide cardiovascular disease management initiative, “Bending the Curve,” which educated patients around CV incidence.
While at Pfizer, Wu was also able to grow the business in China from less than $1 billion to over $4 billion in 2017. “We had tremendous growth and I had tremendous experience,” says Wu. But after 20 years as a GM in China, he faced another career crossroads. “I had witnessed so much change in medicine, and especially innovative medicine in China,” says Wu. “I saw the bigger trends-and that was the biotechs moving forward with those innovative medicines.” Wu says that he knew if he sat on the sidelines and watched this new trend evolve, he would regret it. “I made the decision to leave Pfizer, and it was a huge shock to many in and out of the company.”
But looking at his career path to this point, Wu’s move from Pfizer to Beijing-based BeiGene shouldn’t really be a shock. The transition, he feels, will allow him to leave a real legacy, as BeiGene’s vision, Wu says, is to transform the biopharma industry, creating medicines that will be affordable and accessible to far more cancer patients around the world than has been typical.
“BeiGene has a relentless commitment to quality and compliance, and I see this company as being the first of its kind, to take exceptional and globally relevant new medicines to patients, regardless of location or income,” says Wu. “This is my chance to work with great people who are all driven by this unique challenge to build a lasting and transformative company. As I look at my career to date, I know this will be where I most build my legacy.”
What experiences has Wu brought to his new position with BeiGene? He views his time with Bayer in China as kind of a start-up environment. While he was versed in the processes and standards of the company in Germany, he had to transfer it all and develop it to the healthcare unit in China. As noted, Wu classifies Wyeth as a turnaround situation, and learning new markets. Of Pfizer, he says, “I learned so much and the
company has contributed so much to China and the Chinese pharmaceutical industry. They connected China to the Western world and brought the standard-of-care concept to Chinese physicians. They have increased the healthcare education, skills, and competency to bring China closer to the standards of the rest of the world.”
How does Wu view BeiGene’s current path? “I see some challenges, but that is what I was looking for, otherwise life gets too boring,” he says with a laugh. “Working for big pharma, it has its processes and systems and it’s very structured with excellent support from all your regions. In coming to startup biotech, there are a lot of good and talented people, just like in the multinational companies, but they don’t have as much of the established systems. Some of that is good, and some of that can be challenging.”
For example, Wu believes, some things can be overlooked in communication with smaller teams-not intentionally but because someone possibly forgot, or might not even know the right content or question to ask. “I’ve instituted a more formal system for the different groups to get together to discuss and talk through the issues,” he says. And, similar to many cases when executives jump from pharma to biotech, there is the “multi-hat” phenomenon. “For the large multinationals, you are very focused at different functions. Here, it is new, and you have to do a bit of everything,” explains Wu. “I deal more directly with medical and R&D. I’m much closer to the science at BeiGene and I’m very excited about that.”
Building teams over the course of his career, Wu first looks to see if potential hires have the right ethics and values. “These characteristics are particularly important, as I believe that it’s critical that you show leadership by example,” he says. “There are no shortcuts in our industry, so someone with the right values will eventually go higher in their career and be the type of person that a team will want to follow, learn from, and work to their very best every day. I value a person with the highest ethics over anything else.”
2019 may go down as a pivotal year for BeiGene. Last month, the Chinese biotech was granted FDA breakthrough therapy designation for its investigational Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) inhibitor, zanubrutinib, for the treatment of adult patients with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) who have received at least one prior therapy. Zanubrutinib, being developed in a clinical program that includes seven Phase III trials, is the first drug candidate discovered in China to gain FDA breakthrough therapy status.
BeiGene is anticipating that two new drug applications filed in 2018 to the Chinese regulatory authority, the National Medicinal Products Administration, will be approved this year. They are for zanubrutinib for patients with relapsed/refractory (R/R) chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL), and for tislelizumab, an anti-PD-1 antibody.
And while BeiGene already markets Abraxane (nanoparticle albumin–bound paclitaxel), Revlimid (lenalidomide), and Vidaza (azacitidine) in China under a license from Celgene (whose contract stays in place through the Bristol-Myers Squibb buyout), the 2019 launches would represent the first time BeiGene’s scientists and researchers have taken a compound to commercialization. “There is a lot of coordination around launch readiness,” acknowledges Wu.
Product launch and market access in China is a much different model than in Europe or the US. There is reimbursement on a provincial level and hospital listings have improved, but, by and large, it is an out-of-pocket payment by the patient. Wu says bringing an approved product to the patient has its hurdles.
Away from the day-to-day challenges, Wu continues to look at the biotech and pharma landscape in China as one of promise. He sees the movement of talent among executives and the workforce shifting to biotech, and, going forward, bringing fresh ideas to both sides of industry.
Lisa Henderson is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. She can be reached at email@example.com