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The Next Big Thing

Once the 'world factory', Shenzhen targets new role as China's innovative bio-tech hub

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 7:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 7:01am

Following the news that scientists have landed US$2 million to pursue a genetic engineering solution to HIV/AIDS, Shenzhen authorities said the city's bio-tech industry has grown by double-figures in recent years to over 160 billion yuan (US$25 billion) in 2014.

According to the government's mouthpiece Shenzhen Special Zone Daily, the sector contributed over 105 billion yuan to the city's economy in 2013, 160 billion last year, and is expected to grow to more than 200 billion yuan this year.

While media coverage of the market is dominated by larger companies like BGI – a unit of the world's largest DNA-sequencing business – there are more than 7,000 companies active in the biotechnology sector, with over 300,000 employees and 40 billion yuan in funding, according to Li Ganming, deputy secretary general of the Shenzhen municipal government.

The city's mayor Xu Qin claimed earlier this year that Shenzhen, once dubbed by global media as the "world factory" for its massive production bases and cheap labor cost, had successfully moved beyond its industrial manufacturing base to become a hi-tech hub and innovation leader. This was largely due to six emerging industries – biotechnology, the internet, new energy, new materials, information technology and cultural and creative industries – which together grew 20 per cent last year.

These sectors comprised a greater proportion of the economy than in any other mainland Chinese city, Xu said, contributing to more than 35 per cent of Shenzhen's gross domestic product growth last year.

BGI is the highest profile firm in Shenzhen's bio-tech industry, after landing a 4 billion yuan (US$625 million) investment from backers including Yunfeng Capital, a venture firm founded by Alibaba's Jack Ma Yun and media veteran Yu Feng, which took a 40 per cent stake in BGI.

A number of bio-tech scientists in the city, led by Fu Xuemi at Shenzhen Children's Hospital, were recently awarded 12.8 million yuan (US$2.06 million) by China's National Hi-Tech Research Development Programme for their work in adapting powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 as a tool to fight against HIV/AIDS.