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    China struggles to bring top scientists and entrepreneurs back home


    Ten years ago, China hatched an ambitious plan to bring home its best and brightest scientists and entrepreneurs. Government officials would offer funding, tax breaks, and other perks to Chinese-born luminaries working overseas — and appeal to their sense of nationalism — to persuade them to permanently relocate to China and feed what they hoped would be a renaissance in the country’s long-underachieving biotech sector.

    That renaissance has materialized: China’s biotech sector is indeed rising as a powerhouse.

    But its recruitment program, called Thousand Talents, has failed to live up to initial expectations, experts say. That’s because the leading Chinese-born lights trained at top US universities and biopharma companies have not, for the most part, gone back to China. For many, the uncertain risks and rewards of returning to China as so-called sea turtles have been less appealing than the allure of tenured positions and well-established jobs in the United States.


    Consider the example of Sean Hu, exactly the kind of person that China wants to bring back home.

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    He came to the United States to earn a genomics PhD and an MBA. and has since built a successful career as a biopharma executive and consultant in New York. Over the past decade, Hu’s peers have repeatedly urged him to join the Thousand Talents program. But he’s never applied.

    “Having to stay in China for a good part of the year, that wasn’t something I could satisfy,” said Hu, explaining that such a move would take him away from his US business for too much of the year.

    Thousand Talents is just one arm of China’s push to become a formidable global player in biopharma. The government has made it easier to get green cards. China’s version of the Food and Drug Administration has moved to accelerate the approval process for foreign drugs and make it easier to include Chinese sites in a multisite global clinical trial. And rules that go into effect this year allow pre-revenue companies to go public on Hong Kong’s stock market, as long as they’re valued at at least $192 million, have some patents, and have been in business for two years.

    But the program was supposed to be a key ingredient in the growth of the country’s biopharma industry. The nickname sea turtles, or haigui in Mandarin, has become a term of pride for Chinese companies that have persuaded Chinese-born talents to metaphorically swim back home across the ocean.


    Thousand Talents has at once worked and “fallen short of its goals . . . . it’s brought back some pretty good people, but the best have not come back,” said David Zweig, a longtime observer of the program who directs the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

    Thousand Talents has several branches, including one targeting entrepreneurs and another aimed at recruiting scientists under age 40, both in biomedicine and in other scientific and technological fields. In the most recent round of applications, announced in December, China accepted 41 new entrepreneurs and 630 young scientists. All told, more than 6,000 scientists and entrepreneurs have returned to China through the program since it was announced in 2008, according to the program’s website. (Several Chinese government entities that administer Thousand Talents didn’t respond to STAT’s e-mails seeking comment.)

    The program’s incentives and requirements vary, but one recent advertisement offers a taste of what young scientists can expect. The ad, from Jinan University in Guangzhou, a city in southeast China, seeks to recruit scientists under age 40 who’ve already been accepted as Thousand Talents or who would be good candidates to apply. The conditions: You must hold a doctoral degree. You must have worked or conducted research overseas for at least three years. And you must already have a permanent teaching or research job at a prestigious institution outside of China.

    If they get the job, the researchers will get tens of thousands of dollars in salary, research funding, and subsidies from the Chinese central and provincial governments. They’ll also get support for recruiting PhD students and research assistants. There are personal benefits, too: The ad promises a housing allowance and help with children’s education costs.

    The program has undergone changes over the years, in apparent response to its limitations. Academics with tenured positions in the United States were particularly reluctant to come back to China full time, so the program was changed several years in to allow them to come back to China for a few months of the year, in exchange for fewer perks.


    And, more recently, China has begun targeting foreign-born talent, as well. Ben Shobert, a senior associate at the National Bureau of Asian Research who studies China’s high-technology sector, said he’s seen a shift from an effort to build Thousand Talents “in a way that’s attractive to the sea turtles to now saying, ‘Is there a permutation of this program that’s attractive to foreign biotech academics?’ ”

    ‘Having to stay in China for a good part of the year, that wasn’t something I could satisfy.’

    Ironically, Thousand Talents can sometimes be an afterthought in comparison with other factors that are making China increasingly desirable. In his conversations with sea turtles who had chosen to return to China, Shobert said, they would first mention seeing “much more opportunity to take my IP [intellectual property] and scale it in China than I saw in Western markets,” and that “it was time to go back home.”

    Despite the program’s limitations, it’s been successful enough to spark some concern that US universities and companies may be losing valuable talent. The issue came up at a hearing of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission last year, when commissioner Michael Wessel said he thought Thousand Talents had been overlooked “in terms of the . . . cherry-picking brain drain that’s going on.”

    Hu, the Chinese-born biopharma executive in New York who has to date steered clear of Thousand Talents, is CEO of Avotres, a biotech company working in immunology to try to tackle autoimmune diseases and cancer. Avotres is based in New York for now, but Hu has big plans to open up offices and hire employees in China in the future. And as he makes plans to expand his business footprint in China, he said the timing might finally be right, in the next year or two, to apply to Thousand Talents.

    “There’s a very good environment for people like myself to do business in China,” Hu said.

    Rebecca Robbins can be reached at rebecca.robbins@
    . Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaDRobbins. Follow Stat on Twitter @statnews.