Dr. Chi-Wai Wong, Director, NeuMed Pharmaceuticals Limited
04 October 2012
By Rachel Leow
Edited by Ai San Yip
Photo courtesy of NeuMed Pharmaceuticals Limited
Dr. Wong Chi-Wai, Ms. Wenjuan Tan (NeuMed) and the waterfront of the 22 hectare Hong Kong Science and Technology Park (HKSTP).
NeuMed Pharmaceuticals Limited (NeuMed) aims to develop pharmaceuticals and health supplements based on natural products including those derived from Traditional Chinese Medicine. Many successful drugs currently on the market, such as Aspirin and Statins, were originally identified as bioactive ingredients from natural products. NeuMed has established a highly reliable screening technology platform to identify bioactive ingredients from natural products. This screening platform allows NeuMed to efficiently link bioactive ingredients to well established drug discovery targets so that stringent and comprehensive drug development strategies can be planned to capture the therapeutic values of these bioactive ingredients.
NeuMed has been accepted into the Incu-Bio Program (a four year financial aid package valued at HKD 851,000) offered by the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park (HKSTP). Currently, NeuMed enjoys free access to the Biotechology Support Laboratory in HKSTP.
1. Tell us about yourself.
I was born and educated in Hong Kong and went to US when I was 16 years old to study PhD Biochemistry at University of California, Davis (UC Davis). In 1998, I was packing to leave California upon the completion of my PhD study. That was the first time I was aware of employment opportunities for Biologists in Singapore. That was when the Institute of Molecular Cell Biology (IMCB) was just formed in Singapore Biopolis. In fact, I was looking for post-doctorate (post-doc) position and full-time employment in IMCB. They (one of the scientists) were recruiting post-docs in the science career section. I applied for the job with IMCB concurrently with post-doc positions in the United States. Biology, in its early days, was a completely foreign subject which was also at its very early stages. So, I decided to go to a more established pharmaceutical company. I ended up in Wyeth U.S. (which was previously, American Home Products).
Looking back, it was the “in-thing” to do a post-doc in pharmaceutical MNCs. Several MNCs were running pretty good post-doc programs. Genentech is an example which has very strong post-doc programs and attractive packages. Similar companies like this were the training grounds for future scientists in the biotech industry.
I thought having working experience in a pharmaceutical MNC and having a name, such as Genentech, associated with it is good for my career. I saw it as a very good opportunity. Not only did I get to work as a post-doc, do basic science, carry out a little bit of exploratory research, but also, at the same time, I get exposure to a lot of scenes in a big pharmaceutical company. This includes how professionals run the engines of drug discovery and development more efficiently. This is something you cannot get with an academic post-doc career. This exposure helps to shape my career. Having this experience in the pharmaceutical sector allows me to get an idea of how people manage projects, how people make a decision, how people get resources (financial as well as technical). These are very important managerial skills that nowhere in academia can you get something equivalent to working in the pharmaceutical industry.
Subsequently, I completed my post-doc in Wyeth U.S. and returned to California because I loved living in California. I then joined a small company called Metabolex Inc. (located in San Francisco Bay Area). I was there for a little more than two years before making the next decision to go to Guangzhou. I made the decision back in 2004 to move but you are probably aware that, for the last 15 years of so, there was a lot of mergers and acquisitions among the native pharmaceuticals. Every time there is an announcement, another thousand jobs, sooner or later, will be gone for everybody. The primary reason why I move to Guangzhou was a “sixth sense” instinct that these Mergers and Acquisitions activities (M&A) were going to cut even more jobs in the States. I could be sitting there (United States), waiting for things to happen or I could be proactive and say, “Okay, here is what is going to come”. I might as well just find for myself a major career move. It was a risk but this approach was a proactive one – thus, I decided to leave U.S.
On the hindsight, considering most of the U.S. companies were going through mergers, there were high chances that these companies might lay people off. To give you an example, most of the Chemistry experiments were sub-contracted to CROs in China. You can see a snapshot of the out-sourcing and off-shoring trend coming … this applies for Molecular Biology, Pharmacology, ADME and Toxicology … Eventually, they are going to move, at least some of it, overseas, away from the U.S. At the same time, Chinese firms are investing in CROs and other opportunities; they are interested to acquire brands, technologies and products back to China. I feel it will be interesting in China. This would be kind of my chance. I recalled reading an article, probably in Nature or Nature medicine. They have a profile about a brand new research institute in Guangzhou. It is called Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health, Chinese Academy of Sciences, GIBH (中国科学院广州生物医药与健康研究院). The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has a number of institutes under its control, including this new GIBH. I heard good things and bad things about research institutes based in China. And of course, there was a lot of buzz about the political implications involved (there are rarely clear-cut answers when it comes to Chinese politics) but at the same time, China was seen as a country with lots of money, resources and opportunities. The difference for GIBH was, first of all, it was a brand new institute and second, it was collaboration between the provincial and city governments and also the CAS. So, each party sponsored an equivalent amount to RMB 100 Million and more ... I would summarise that living and working in China gave me this ability to solve real-world problems with creative approaches in dynamic environment, thus I worked in GIBH as a Principal Investigator for five years.
2. How did NeuMed started? Was it something you wanted to do long ago in United States?
I think, at a time of your life, you would think about being an entrepreneur (define as if you truly want to find things that you can focus on, and deliver far better results if you work on it full-time). Sooner or later, you will realize that all things are stepping stones to the next. I took a step of faith doing a post-doc in a pharmaceutical company. That was the first step. It is more about seeing how people run the company. And then, I went to Metabolex Inc. in California, only about 50 people at that time. That was about learning about how to do research on a shoestring, tight budget. You need the paycheck, people the money. How to recruit and manage people? It was a learning experience as well as a stepping stone. There were too many M&As going on in the U.S. to find a good job.
Guangzhou gave me a totally new managerial experience; from getting a group of scientists who were not on the same page to somehow managing to get a group of people to work together and filing patents.
At the very end of 2009, I got to know what was going on in Hong Kong (the people here, the incubator program here, etc.). It is a valuable program to help seed innovative start-ups.
Neumed, the company, was registered in 2009. I made the move in 2010. My team project was evaluated by the science park official as one of the very few top projects. At the end, we licensed it out. GIBH signed the license right to another company, the new start-up. In the end, my experience at GIBH was not in an optimal condition, I managed to squeeze something out. I was looking for something new in 2009. A headhunter gave me a call on behalf of a pharmaceutical company which had set up a subsidiary, Singapore R&D Centre for Drug Discovery in 2009. Two people recruited at this pharmaceutical company were my former colleagues in Metabolex Inc. I wondered if that was the right environment (and thus, the right choice). Those two people I know, they have probably left the pharmaceutical company by now (this pharmaceutical company had closed its Singapore R&D Center for Drug Discovery in December 2010 and eventually moved back to U.S.) I would say that being just another employee in a pharmaceutical company was not what I am looking for.
3. What is NeuMed business model?
We will focus on the value chain in drug discovery.
We will create a business and technological platform where NeuMed can build assets by a collaborative approach with other research labs in academia (institutes) or pharmaceutical industries.
Our technological platform is based on in vitro screening assays by putting compounds in cells and having read-outs. We have a set of favorite diseases, based on the major markets, e.g. cancer, metabolic diseases. So, we will be actively working on those. Among those, we will triage and select those promising ones. As a small company, we are not going for completely novel targets as this approach is just way too risky. We will go for relatively new, “me-better kind” of combination. It is our intuitive knowledge and experience that allows NeuMed to do better. Once we build up our assets, we work with others who can provide us their compounds / libraries. We intend to set-up collaborations with institutes in China, sharing the IPs etc…the important thing is to characterise the targets/ molecules then patent them and make these patents somewhat more valuable (with more drug-able potential).
At this junction, NeuMed is still in an exploratory stage. We build characterisation and cell-based platform, using what is readily available in HKSTP.
4. What are the next steps for NeuMed?
We will maintain relationships with active collaborators, especially those in the field of drug discovery e.g. cancer and diabetes. Once we have gained good access to a library of active compounds (those with good pharmacology data), we will move fast to validate these compounds in vitro.
We do not exclude the possibility of setting up a subsidiary somewhere else ... What we are thinking of is to work on promising collaborative projects that would give us a 50:50 share to jointly file patents in China and United States (patenting strategy to be developed …).
We hope to set up a network of good collaborators and affiliates to reduce costs and get multiple targets and disease model species at the same time. At the same time, push one of these to file a patent to be secured, in terms of IP position. Then, in time, use the patent; go to Suzhou Biobay to tap on more resources for drug development and/ or biosimilar development support in China.
In the business world, leverage is an important concept. In our context, we want to create as high leverage as possible in each stage of the drug development process.
5. If there is one word of advice you can give to aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking to start their business in the industry, what would that be?
Biotech is very different (from Apps or Information and Communications industry).
I would advise him / her to start working for a real company / MNCs. Try to understand as much as possible, not just from a scientific point-of-view, but also the business management point-of-view. I cannot imagine starting a company without working for one first. It is most important. You will be lucky to find an investor and you will be extremely lucky to get some serious financing. I will just go with what I have and once I get to that stage (where an investor is required), I do not worry about finding an investor. They will find me (or entrepreneurs). That is when I will have additional leverage. It is tough to ask for money. When you show success, people will give you money, and this will be different!
To contact the reporter on this story: Ai San Yip at