As the fifth China Grand Award for Industry was announced on Dec. 9, Conbercept, an ophthalmic injection, was awarded as one of the country's 11 top industrial projects of the year.
Honored by one of China's top awards in industry together with Fuxing bullet trains and the Fengyun meteorological satellites, the product is manufactured by Chengdu Kanghong Pharmaceutical Group, a private medical company based in the southwest province of Sichuan.
According to Kanghong President Hao Xiaofeng, innovation has always been a primary focus of the company, which produces ophthalmic as well as central nervous and digestive system drugs, since it was set up in 1996.
"Though we don't produce a wide range of drugs, each of our products came to the market with innovation and can fill the voids," he said.
Conbercept is used for aged-related macular degeneration (AMD) treatment. As of 2016, over 4 million old people in China suffered from the disease, which may result in blurred or no vision.
It is also the first Chinese innovator biotech drug with a unique and globally recognized International Nonproprietary Name given by the World Health Organization.
More private medical companies are rising as the industry is transforming from the "Made in China" model to "Created in China," with more innovator drugs and less generic drugs, said Meng Dongping, vice president of China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export Medicines & Health Products (CCCMHPIE).
"These private companies are playing a leading role in innovation and the internationalization of China's medical industry," she said.
"Being responsive to the market and open-minded, with sufficient funds and competitive products, private medical companies have become leading players in many market segments," Meng said.
According to the CCCMHPIE, only 9.6 percent of China's export companies in medical industry were private companies in 2001, while the figure rose to 56.5 percent in 2017. Amid rising prosperity, ambitious private companies have also eyed higher-quality development and taken innovation as a key measure.
Yin Jinqun, vice president of Kanghong, said the company "started from zero" to develop biotech drugs, which were priced much higher than chemical drugs yet harder to develop. "We put over 1 billion yuan (about 144.8 million U.S. dollars) in developing Conbercept, though our sales were less than 1 billion yuan when the project started in 2005."
Greater input in research and development brought in more promising results. In June, Ganovo, a new drug developed by a Zhejiang-based private company for hepatitis C treatment, was licensed by the National Medical Products Administration. It is the first direct acting antiviral developed by a Chinese company.
The developer Ascletis is also working on another new drug, which in combination with Ganovo can serve as China's first all-oral, interferon-free hepatitis C virus therapy.
"The licensing of Ganovo represented the developing innovation capacity of China's medical companies and is also a great breakthrough in prevention and control of serious diseases," said Sang Guowei, an expert in clinical pharmacy from the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
In Zhejiang, the eastern province where Ascletis is based, provincial capital Hangzhou issued a guideline on improving the innovative development of the city's biotech industry in May, announcing biopharmacy as a development priority and future government support for new drug development.
The pharmaceutical industry was the second largest contributor to Hangzhou's economic growth among all industries in 2017.
In 2017, more than 300,000 biotech companies were newly set up in China, and nearly 20 billion yuan of investment was made in the biotech industry in the first three months of 2018. Opportunities are found in both the market and the favorable environment provided by the government.
In October last year, China's central authorities also issued a guideline to ease and speed up approval of drugs and medical devices as part of efforts to deepen the country's healthcare reform.
"It can greatly stimulate innovation and enhance the innovation in the medical industry in general," Meng said.
Kanghong had more than 150 licensed invention patents as of the beginning of this year and is now working on 15 national research programs. Yin, the vice president, said the company's efforts in innovation not only meant better profitability, but also the potential to provide patients their own solutions.
Before 2014 when Conbercept began to be sold in China, the patient choice for AMD treatment was Lucentis, an ophthalmic injection developed by European pharmaceutical giant Novartis. While Lucentis used to be priced at about 10,000 yuan, the price fell to about 7,000 yuan after Conbercept entered the market and is now less than 6,000 yuan.
"Without Conbercept, the competitor, there would be no need for the price drop of Lucentis, from which the Chinese patients benefited most," Yin said.
"China has companies with outstanding performance and has provided Chinese solutions in many fields in the world, but not in the field of medicine," he said. "We hope to work out with our own Chinese solutions in medication in the foreseeable future, and we are proud of our endeavor to reach this goal."