The United States is the most influential player in the global biotech market, with 108 billion dollars in revenue, a market capitalization of 890 billion dollars, and four of the five largest biotech companies in the world. The Bay Area is the metro area with the highest concentration of the industry in the world.
Meanwhile, in China, of the 42 cancer drugs that have been approved globally, only four are available in China. This despite the fact that China is the second largest pharmaceutical market after the United States. Nevertheless, growth is evident. Over the past decade or so, government support for biomedical companies has increased, with the administration including the industry as a plank in many recent five-year plans and stipulating that the sector should exceed 4% of GDP by 2020. China also has over a hundred life-science parks, locally run havens of tax breaks and subsidies that have helped lure talent, both academic and business-oriented. A large part of this human capital comes from people born in China but with extensive academic or work histories in North America. Since the financial crisis, domestic investment has shifted towards the small but clearly growing industry away from the bloated manufacturing and real estate sectors, especially as awareness of China’s lag in drug availability and ageing population has grown.
Job growth in the Chinese biomedical industry is increasingly being driven by Chinese start-ups, some of which may even be headed by expatriates. The domestication of the industry, driven by the skyrocketing amount of funds raised by Chinese venture capital firms, parallels the new wave of research being undertaken by domestic universities, complete with plentiful grant money. Some experts even characterize Chinese grants as being more willing to support high-risk research projects compared to their American counterparts.
An aging population, limited water supplies, and polluted land are all recognized incentives for China to invest in agriculture biotechnology. However, China is more competitive in the gene-editing market, especially via investments in American businesses that, because they are mostly startups, do not have their foreign investments monitored for potential threats to national security by the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
The hot peace with China perhaps raises fears that tight regulation puts America at risk of losing technology races and thereby compromises national security. It’s long been accepted as conventional wisdom that American innovation and global competitiveness are hampered by a strict regulatory regime, the type of system that, for instance, has been encouraging many American-based researchers to file CRISPR patents in China in the last few years. American regulations involve more than just a national security calculus, of course, and also manage the nation’s health and safety. So while on the one hand it is true that American regulators don’t tend to accept riskier or more ambitious proposals at the rate that a lot of other countries do, on the other this narrative fits neatly into a neoliberal derision for government interference in markets that’s dominated our policymaking for decades.