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Dream Driven: Exclusive Interview with Dr. Jun Wang, Executive Director of BGI
publication date: Mar 19, 2013
author/source: Richard Daverman, PhD
ChinaBio® Today recently had the chance to interview Dr. Jun Wang, a co-founder of China’s sequencing giant, BGI-Shenzhen. Dr. Wang was named Executive Director of the company at the young age of 32. The company works with many of the big pharma and has established several major international partnerships. The driving force behind these relationships, according to Dr. Wang, is always the science.
“We are a dream-driven organization,” he says. The dream is the promise of genomic science to improve human life, and BGI seems willing to enter any partnership that will advance genomic science, even if it doesn’t necessarily represent a profit opportunity.
In 2012, Dr. Wang was named one of “Nature’s 10: Ten People Who Mattered this Year,” an international group of scientists selected by Nature who are making a major impact in life science.
BGI got its start in 1999, when it participated in the Human Genome Project, contributing 1% of the work. At the time, it was known as Beijing Genomics Institute. Since then it has moved its headquarters to Shenzhen and become known as BGI. It has also grown into the world’s largest sequencing company, with many “firsts” in its short 13-year history.
One of these is the acquisition of Complete Genomics, the first acquisition of a public US company by a Chinese firm to date, and an indication of the increasing globalization of the Chinese life science industry. The acquisition was finalized on March 18, 2013.
A special thanks to Dr. Samantha Du, Managing Director of Sequoia Capital China, for helping arrange the interview. Sequoia recently participated in BGI’s $222 million capital round in September, 2012, which helped fund BGI’s acquisition U.S. Complete Genomics.
ChinaBio: Dr. Wang, I read your biography and was very impressed by your background. You have accomplished a great deal at BGI in a very short period of time. How did you get started with BGI?
Dr. Jun Wang: I joined the team before BGI started. I was the one doing the computing work at the institute, taking care of data analysis, hardware and software and that sort of thing.
ChinaBio: You were heading up the bioinformatics side of things initially. Your role has expanded pretty significantly since then.
Dr. Jun Wang: At that time, BGI was basically in Beijing and it had a subsidiary in Hangzhou. I was head of the Hangzhou center for one year and then headed the Beijing office for another two or three years. I became the Executive Director of BGI in 2008.
ChinaBio: How would you say BGI has changed your life?
Dr. Jun Wang: In my bachelor’s work, I was working on artificial intelligence. That also is a multi-disciplinary field that is based on computing science, biology and mathematics. At the time, the human genome project was an interesting niche in my career. We didn’t know the future when we started. We formed BGI by ourselves and were going to try to do 1% of the project. After we finished the project, a lot of people asked us what would be next step.
We are the true believers, believing that genomics leads to a new future, a new world, that genomics will change a lot of things. We have to prove that. We have to prove that genomics will be useful. We want to do something that is good for society. We know genomics technology will change the world, but we have to prove it. We want ordinary people to have the services and products that come from genomics knowledge.
ChinaBio: You do whole genomes of individuals, but aren’t you focused on doing much deeper science?
Dr. Jun Wang: We are doing prenatal testing for Down’s syndrome and deafness, for example. So people can take advantage of BGI now. There is a big difference biotech and IT. They both want to change world. But biotech must know the world before it can change the world. It is important to bring the understanding of the human genome down to DNA level or molecular level. Based on that, you can apply the findings to ordinary life. We know the gene and phenotype relationship of Down’s syndrome. We can test maternal blood for that, test the genes and offer the value of genomic knowledge. This is just one example of what can be done. We know the biology and so we can make a difference in ordinary people’s lives.
ChinaBio: When I was looking back at BGI’s accomplishments over the past thirteen years, there is quite a list, starting with the 1% of the human genome, and now you have over 3,000 employees in China and the US.
Dr. Jun Wang: We have close to 5,000 employees now.
ChinaBio: And looking at your list of locations, you have many locations in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Shenzhen, plus Boston and other locations in the US.
Dr. Jun Wang: Our headquarters is in Shenzhen. Our international headquarters is in Hong Kong, but those two campuses [Shenzhen and Hong Kong] are just a half hour’s driving apart. We have lots of centers in China. We actually cover most major cities in China. We have two labs in the US: the east coast is Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and west coast is UC-Davis. We also have a lab in Copenhagen.
ChinaBio: How have you been able to grow so quickly? Is there a specific business model behind that that has allowed you to grow?
Dr. Jun Wang: First of all, we are not a profit-driven institution. We have efficient needs to set up a lab or office where we will do work. At these locations, people have research needs or healthcare needs – they need us to work with them and to develop something useful. In Copenhagen, we have several big projects with Danish researchers, so we set up a lab. In Philadelphia, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia wanted more clinical services for newborn babies in the future and it wanted to do research on children’s disorders, so we needed a lab there.
So basically, we are not profit-driven, but goal-driven or dream-driven. We have a dream together. We have projects together and we are going to work together, so we need a lab. In most cases, we send back samples to Hong Kong. Then they can perform the experiments. That is also a model. We don’t really care what kind of model we are using, but we care about getting the job done most efficiently.
ChinaBio: I like the expression dream-driven. It’s a great way of describing what you are doing. One of the reasons you’ve been able to accomplish all this in such a short time would seem to be because of your government support. The China government has given, or committed, billions to BGI, which makes it easier to do the work. Now you have raised $222 million from VCs, including Sequoia Capital China, and we know Sequoia well enough to know they are going to expect some return on their investment. Are you going to have to change how you operate in the future because of this? Will you have to be profit-driven as opposed to purely dream-driven?
Dr. Jun Wang: First of all, I have to clarify. We didn’t really receive billions of dollars from the government. We have received loans from commercial banks in China. They don’t give the money for free; we have to pay them back. We are not a government-funded institution, but a private one. We do also receive research grants from the central government. They are competitive grants. In the China system, people could get them, if they are competitive enough. And we are getting research grants from our research entities. But again, that doesn’t mean we are government-funded institute.
ChinaBio: You’re right. If you look at what’s been published, it seems like BGI is dependent on government support.
Dr. Jun Wang: We are one of the few institutions in China research that [is making a profit and thus] also pays tax. The after-tax profits are used to fund research. We are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into research. We could become rich. But we don’t think that way. We invest all the money back into research because we want to do good things for society. We have bigger dreams. So to clarify, in regards to the VCs like Sequoia, the reason we are doing this fund raising is we needed the money to acquire a US public company called Complete Genomics.
There are different parts to BGI. We have research parts like BGI Research, BGI Tech Service, BGI Healthcare, BGI Agriculture to do molecular breeding, and we recently started an Environmental Protection division to reduce carbon emissions, lower water waste and other environmental work.
ChinaBio: You mentioned Copenhagen University, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and UC-Davis. You have been very active with cross-border partnerships with other research institutes and hospitals, such as Johns Hopkins, University of Edinburgh, and Autism Speaks, among others. These are probably dream-driven projects, I guess, and these bring in scientific value, but do they also bring profits to BGI?
Dr. Jun Wang: Lots of them are pure scientific collaborations. Genomics is international. We can’t do it all. We need all kinds of expertise all over the world to do the job. Doing scientific research has no national borders; scientists can talk freely anywhere. So we talk to each other freely. If we have a common goal or dream, we can pool all our research together to do a great project together.
ChinaBio: With Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where you are working to develop a more effective therapy of sub-types of pediatric brain tumors. Will you be focusing more on rare disease and individual medicine? Is this a corporate strategy to move toward rare diseases?
Dr. Jun Wang: Very rare tumors are often inherited, and they’re often easier to detect compared to other tumors. BGI has different groups working on different projects, but we don’t want to emphasize one area over another.
ChinaBio: What about the data that comes out of all this research? You have amassed a tremendous amount of data over the years. Is that something you plan to leverage going forward and maybe develop new diagnostic tests or identifying maybe other applications for new drugs?
Dr. Jun Wang: Lots of the data have been published. All of the research is publicly available. Sometimes we work with private partners, whose data must be kept private. We do that on a case-by-case basis.
ChinaBio: So, in some cases, you are building a proprietary database from the data?
Dr. Jun Wang: We are project based. We are trying to organize all of the data that BGI is developing into a central database. BGI has just announced a journal called GigaScience. The journal is coupled with a freely available database so we are trying to organize all of BGI’s data into that database.
ChinaBio: And that will be available for no cost?
Dr. Jun Wang: Yes, it will be freely available. There is also a category for projects where companies don’t want to release the data. So we respect that.
ChinaBio: You have relationships with corporate entities like Merck and Novo Nordisk and others, where that would apply?
Dr. Jun Wang: Yes, it also happens in some academic relationships with professors who want to keep their research private. We also respect that. We are flexible. But for ourselves, we want to share as much data as possible because the whole genomics world needs to be shared. People have to work together on the data, mine it, and develop something good.
ChinaBio: Is this a correct to say that BGI generates data and makes it widely available to others, but does not necessarily mine it or extract the next level of value from the data?
Dr. Jun Wang: No. We absolutely will mine data. We absolutely seek to extract as much knowledge by ourselves as possible. But sometimes you can’t do it alone because your capacity or your ability is limited. We need help from others, and sometimes you want to put the data on the web to benefit society. But we will absolutely do the annotation and the mining by ourselves. Also, if you want to publish a paper, you need to mine the data. You can’t just publish the data, you need to tell the story of the data.
ChinaBio: From a business perspective, what is the value you are generating for BGI or your market, such as the maternal genetic tests you mentioned, from the data?
Dr. Jun Wang: So for a given cancer tumor, we get sequencing down to a single cell. We try to figure out the driving genes of the tumor and then discover drug targets for the tumor. In the future, we will be able to offer personalized cancer services based on that.
Another thing we are doing is associating dietary studies with different diseases, such as diabetes, so we are looking at nutritional patterns with these diseases to see how nutrition affects the metabolic process. There are a lot of scientific stories. All the data has stories behind it. And eventually those scientific stories will converge into medications in the market.
ChinaBio: Getting back to your corporate relationships with big pharmas like Merck and Novo Nordisk, is that what you are doing with them, identifying opportunities for new drug development?
Dr. Jun Wang: These are strategic partnerships. We are trying to develop something useful for the next generation of pharmaceutical solutions.
ChinaBio: Can you be more specific? Are these relationships focusing on personalized medicine, for example?
Dr. Jun Wang: It’s really all related to how to use new kinds of drug solutions based on the genomic data that has been discovered.
ChinaBio: With respect to the acquisition of Compete Genomics, the company was supposed to be a profitable company, but they didn’t make it. The two benefits of the acquisition would seem to be their presence in the US and CG’s technology. Is that right?
Dr. Jun Wang: We already have a presence in the US, so we didn’t need to buy CG for that. It was mostly the technology and their R&D [capabilities]. But, once again, it is because we share the same dream. They want to sequence one million human genomes. And we want to do that too. And we believe that with the technology and BGI’s downstream capability, we can work together for that.
ChinaBio: You have developed a very impressive array of data that spans agricultural, plants and microbes. In the future, will you focus on human genomic questions or what area do you see as future direction?
Dr. Jun Wang: We think the other areas are also important and we have subsidiaries for each, though we expect healthcare will be important and also agriculture.
ChinaBio: In your early years at BGI, how did you initiate the contact with the human genome project and how did you convince them that you were capable? After all, you were the only participant from a developing country.
Dr. Jun Wang: Maynard Olson at the University of Washington was one of the people behind the human genome project, and two co-founders of BGI graduated from there. That was an easy go for BGI to be part of the Human Genome Project. It was important for the project to be international. The idea was “We do it together, we share it together.” Everybody owns the human genome. Everybody shares the outcome of the human genome. Everybody sequenced the human genome together.
ChinaBio: The whole world of genomics is evolving very rapidly. Where do you see BGI in five or ten years?
Dr. Jun Wang: This is a long journey for BGI. We don’t have a very specific definition for what we should achieve in five or ten years. We want to develop something good for society. We want to use our genomics technology to do the job. We will continue to work in all genomics areas and develop as many products as possible.
But we do have some specific goals for healthcare, agriculture, BGI Research and BGI Tech in mind. We will continue on this very long journey. We are dream-driven and dreams are not that easy to make true.
ChinaBio: What about you personally – do you have goals for yourself in five or ten years?
Dr. Jun Wang: I don’t really separate my personal ego from BGI’s goals. I have to think of the two together.
ChinaBio: Dr. Du, let me direct the final question to you. Dr. Wang has a very long-term perspective and, as he says, is dream driven. But VCs have limited life for their funds. What is Sequoia expecting from BGI in terms of return?
Dr. Samantha Du: That’s a billion dollar question. We share their dream. We think the company has a lot of promise and a big future, and we will be very patient in working with them, not only for the dream but the return for the investors.