Cold Spring Harbor: SIP's showcase of seminal discoveries
Last Updated: 2015-10-23 09:08 |
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Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on the north shore of Long Island, New York, is one of the oldest biological research institutions in the United States and research papers published by its scientists are more frequently cited than those of any other research institution in the world.

The laboratory has been home to eight Nobel Prize winners who helped establish the field of molecular genetics and made seminal discoveries about bacterial viruses, the structure of DNA, and chromosome repair.

The lab's basic research focuses on molecular genetics and genomics of cancer, brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, plant biology and quantitative biology, bioinformatics and genomic sequencing. The lab is also a major center for high-level international meetings of top scientists and advanced training courses.

So it was a big coup when James Watson, the chancellor of the lab and a Nobel Prize winner in 1953 for his part in the groundbreaking discovery of DNA's double helix structure, decided to set up a second Cold Spring Harbor campus in Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP), one of China's most competitive and cleanest development zones.

Maoyen Chi, Asia CEO for the Cold Spring Harbor Lab in Suzhou, played a key role in bringing Watson on a reconnaissance trip to China in 2006. "I knew that the laboratory had long had a plan to expand the program outside the U.S. So when I proposed the idea of Suzhou they said they would consider it."

"I arranged a trip for Jim to Suzhou and he was so impressed by the scale, capability and hospitality of SIP, that on the next day back to Shanghai he basically gave me the green light to start the project," Chi recalls, adding that Suzhou won out over many other candidates, including Japan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou.

"Suzhou turned out to be an ideal place. It has the tradition and elegance of Chinese culture and a tradition of scholarship," says Chi, a Suzhou native who after completing his PhD at Ohio State University went on to undertake post-doctoral work at Cold Spring Harbor Lab in New York in 2001.

Huge Progress

Since it opened its doors five years ago, the Cold Spring Harbor campus in SIP has hosted 12 Nobel laureates and provided a forum for some of the world's top scientists to discuss cutting edge research on everything from evolutionary genetics and genomics to stem cells, mitochondria, and bacterial infection and host defense.

Upcoming conferences in 2016 will cover topics as diverse as cancer and metabolism, disease of neural circuitry and the development and pathophysiology of respiratory systems and companies that are tenants in SIP are allowed to attend for free.

"We are serving the scientific community not only in China but in the entire Asia-Pacific region with the same platform that has worked so well in the U.S. for the last 125 years," says Chi. "We have an integrated ecosystem happening here and Cold Spring Harbor serves as an anchor or an information hub. Smart people like to talk to smart people."

In February 2015, Cold Spring Harbor Lab in New York signed a 10-year agreement to develop a DNA Learning Center for Asia in SIP. The pilot program is dedicated entirely to genetics education and will take 6,000 high school students a year before expanding it to the wider community.

The world-class life science education centre will offer the same types of hands-on-lab laboratory experiments for students in SIP as it has offered in the U.S. since 1988 and will be developed in an existing set of modern, pod-like buildings in SIP's biotechnology business park, BioBAY.

The program includes week-long genetic workshops for students, summer day camps, field-trips, and possibly even Saturday classes about DNA that will be open to the public. The exploration starts with each student's own DNA, Chi explains. "We show them their DNA code-the program that built not just them but that makes all living things and is the oldest book in the world."

Eventually it could develop teacher training workshops on basic heredity, genetic disorders, eugenics, the structure of DNA, DNA sequencing, cancer, and plant genetics.

"The DNA Learning Center is targeted toward teenagers-the future generation of Chinese scientists, businessmen and even politicians," Chi says. "We think this project has tremendous significance to transform Chinese society by re-engineering the way the Chinese students think."

Catalyst for New Knowledge

Cold Spring Harbor's huge popularity, as well as its impact, in SIP is just another showcase of how SIP has moved from its early beginnings as a manufacturing and business base to higher tech industry and a place where science, R&D, innovation and entrepreneurship can flourish.

"It's fair to say that before 2010, the city of Suzhou in terms of the biomedical industry, was a nobody," says Chi, "but now Suzhou is a somebody-it's number two or number three in the country. Suzhou is a serious place for science and SIP and BioBAY did a fantastic job."

Peter Luo, chief executive officers of Adagene, would agree. He set up the company in SIP's BioBAY in early 2012. One of the key things that attracted him was Cold Spring Harbor and the opportunity it offered him to interact with some of the world's top scientists.

"There are at least three or four conferences a year at Cold Spring Harbor that are relevant to us and only the best scientists participate," he says. "We are invited to take part in these meetings for free and you can get ideas and information and make informal contacts."

Today BioBAY, which includes a project incubator, accelerator, industrialization area, as well as administrative office and living facilities, is home to about 400 companies in areas such as drug development, medical devices, biotech, and nanotech, according to Mary Zhao, director of BioBAY's industrial service department.

"BioBAY has eight years of experience helping start-ups and small companies through the difficult early years. BioBAY has helped build a business from just an idea on a scrap of paper," she says, or helped start-ups raise millions in early capital and move from innovation to commercial implementation. In some cases it has helped companies work their way through various issues associated with getting approvals from the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S., and its counterpart in China (CFDA).

Zhao notes that the number of medical device companies in BioBAY that have received product certificates has risen from 50 in 2012 to more than 150 this year.

"Knowledge-based economy could only be built over time when there is abundant 'quality input' - such as talent - accumulated," according to Professor Terence Tse, Associate Professor at the London campus of ESCP Europe Business School.

"The role of the administrators is not necessarily to design and decide what types of companies should be included," Tse says. "What's more crucial is to create an environment that can attract and make good use of quality input investments."

Magnet for Innovators

The success of Alex Chen, founder and chief executive of Crystal Pharmatech Company is an example of what SIP can do [for 'quality input']. Chen got his PhD at Rutgers University in the U.S. and then spent eight years working for pharmaceutical giant Merck. But like many other China-born scientists, he was determined to start his own business and play his part in transforming China's economy.

He returned to China in 2010 and visited Suzhou with the idea of specializing in pharmaceutical crystallization research. Within one week he secured US$2.5 million in funding from a venture capital firm in SIP, allowing him to leave Merck and start Cyrstal Pharmatech. In August 2015 the company raised another US$10 million in Round A financing.

Initially, almost all of Crystal Pharmatech's work was for large U.S. pharmaceutical companies. Today the US market makes up just 65% of the company's revenues with the rest 35% coming from Chinese companies.

Chen says SIP has been crucial to the company's success. "The area looks and feels right for high-tech start-ups," he says. "There are important specialist biotech services on campus and support from an SIP team that understands the nature of business and brings government support."

The entrepreneur also notes that property prices in SIP are far lower than in neighboring Shanghai and the attractive setting encourages high-quality staff to join and stay.

Says Chen: "The seriousness of the area as a biotech hub gives customers confidence in the long-term continuity of the company."

According to a Working Report from SIP's Bureau of Science & Technology, one way the park has been able to promote innovation in technology is by the financial services that are available. The Dongsha Lake Equity Investment Centre, for example, hosts 120 market-driven venture capital and private equity firms overseeing about 60 billion renminbi. The park has created the first-ever micro-financing company dedicated to servicing tech startups there; and it's also designing a master plan for a bond exchange center for fledgling technology companies.

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