The Lab Man visits the Middle Kingdom

Jul 24, 2012

The Lab Man recently returned from the 2012 SLAS Asia Conference and Exhibition together with an extended tourist excursion through China. Here are some thoughts – first, on China in general.

Compared to the other Asian population giant, India (visited by SLAS last year) – well, there really seems to be no comparison. Even with the huge population, China seems to function. Trains, planes, cars and boats move more or less as planned without constantly threatening to run into each other! Note to others – pedestrians DO NOT have the right-of-way! Metro systems are easy to navigate and understand, even providing tidy plastic bags in which to stash wet umbrellas to avoid slippery floors. A great deal of signage is bilingual – Chinese and English. The cities, while huge, are clean and orderly. I realize that many will say that there is a great deal (good and bad) that I didn’t see or experience. True enough. But for someone who might be considering doing business in Asia, China has and is feverously creating more of the kind of infrastructure that matters to businesses. Yes, processes and procedures can be difficult and strange to westerners. In that regard, welcome to Asia as a whole! The Western way of doing things is not meant to be a worldwide standard!

Now, regarding the SLAS Asia conference and Chinese science and technology. The SLAS Asia conference was a great success. There were 492 attendees, 18 presentations, three short courses, five workshops and an exhibition of 45 booths. Anyone would immediately recognize the hallmarks of SLAS conferences – quality content, excellent educational and networking opportunities, a busy exhibit floor and excellent food and drink. Jean-Francois Tremblay, C&E News Senior Asia Correspondent noted “the SLAS meeting is currently the main automated instrumentation event on China’s calendar. And interest in it is growing.  In the area of drug research and development, Chinese scientists are getting closer to developing new drugs. But at many research organizations that are initiating drug R&D programs, scientists still lack an understanding of the whole R&D process and how sophisticated instrumentation can advance it.”

That hunger for education was evidenced by the standing-room attendance at several vendor workshops – one focused on cell-based assays and another on stem cell culture and analysis tools.  Often the final afternoon of a conference is lightly attended, but in Shanghai the second (last) day afternoon talks and exhibition were still robustly attended. Rosemary Drake from TAP Biosystems commented “I had more people attend my talk here than in San Diego (SLAS2012).” The final hours of the exhibition were still humming, possibly fueled by what is referred to in China as the “Lucky Draw.”  In this case the Lucky Draw featured an expense paid trip to attend SLAS2013 in Orlando. Several vendors also offered Lucky Draws for iPhones, which seem to be worth their weight in gold there! 

As for science and technology in general, my first impression was how young the technical population in China is. Before you discount this with sarcastic thoughts about The Lab Man’s age, let me say that others also noted this detail. The more senior scientists mostly seem to be “Sea Turtles,” or Hai Gui – returned from overseas, having been educated and/or employed in the West. However, the rank and file scientists have generally not worked outside China and as a whole are quite young. One characteristic of such an environment is a pressing need to infuse the young workforce with lots of practical how-to knowledge and an education about overall business and industry practices and procedures. In large, established organizations, that generally happens via “institutional learning” that slowly infuses into younger staff. In Chinese pharma companies, there is no institutional learning to be had – it must come from other sources, including organizations like SLAS.

One of the SLAS Program Committee members, Professor Xie Xin, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences National Center for Drug Screening, was recently quoted in C&EN as saying that private sector drug R&D in China is 20 years behind the U.S. But as her program shows, the Chinese government is determined to close that gap quickly. Gap-closing seems to be what the country is all about today, whether it’s R&D science, transportation infrastructure or availability of goods and services. I noticed the little signs of increasing affluence large crowds at the Apple and Ikea stores, our tour guide buying an $80 birthday present shirt for her father-in-law, and the abundance of Chinese tourists out traveling around their country. Change happens fast today in China. SLAS hopes to be a part of it.  

Until Next Time,

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!


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