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Richard Wang: A Seventeen-Year Odyssey of an Overseas PhD Returnee in the Pursuit of Domestic Innovative Drug Development


Awards: Top 50 Innovation & Entrepreneurship Enterprises (Growth Group) at the 12th China Innovation & Entrepreneurship Competition

Interviewee: Richard Liqun Wang, the Founder, Chairman & CEO of Neukio Biotherapeutics, specializes in the development of universal iPSC-CAR-NK cell products and application of solid tumor therapies. Mr. Wang holds a B.S degree in Cell Biology from the University of Science and Technology of China, a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and an MBA from Xavier University in Cincinnati, and has completed postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health (U.S.). Boasting a career that extends beyond three decades in the biopharmaceutical sector within the U.S. and China, he has amassed a wealth of technical expertise and experience in R&D management. Over the last nine years, his dedication has been unwavering towards the research, development, and industrialization of cell therapies.

Entrepreneur's insight: Innovation poses a formidable challenge that requires significant dedication and hard work. The complexities involved in this endeavor are often underestimated. To become a successful entrepreneur, it is crucial to have a clear goal and to steadfastly direct all efforts towards achieving that goal.    


Returning to China after 24 years to pursue domestic development of innovative drugs

Born and raised in Shanghai, Richard Wang embodies the refined elegance and gentility of an old-school Shanghai gentleman. His manner of speaking and conducting consistently radiates a calming and inspiring presence, influencing those around him positively.

The year he graduated from high school coincided with the reinstatement of the college entrance examination in China. Seizing this opportunity, he pursued further education in the Department of Cell Biology at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). One might wonder why Richard Wang, as a native of shanghai, chose USTC over the many prestigious schools in his hometown. With a smile, Richard Wang attributed it to a popular saying at the time: "The 21st century will be the era of life science", and USTC was renowned as a top-tier university for science and technology. "Reflecting on it now, that decision seems quite forward-looking. In truth, it was my firm conviction in that adage that guided me." After years of exploration, Richard Wang has circled back to the core of drug innovation: cells. It appears that destiny has a knack for aligning things just right.

During a period of scientific renaissance with substantial government emphasis, Richard Wang aspired to contribute to the country’s great endeavor. Meanwhile, he harbored a secret hope for an opportunity to do so in Shanghai after graduation. "Shanghai, with its numerous life science institutes under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, should have the opportunity for me to become a member of the national team." To his surprise, an opportunity to study abroad arose before he could even graduate.

Later, Richard Wang became one of the pioneering Chinese students to undertake postgraduate studies in the U.S. Upon obtaining his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, he furthered his research with a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Throughout his career, Richard Wang was engaged in many Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies. For nearly 20 years, he has held pivotal management roles at Procter & Gamble U.S., Bristol Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca, and the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) R&D Center in China. In the process, he has been actively involved in and has spearheaded the R&D, as well as the translation, of several new drugs. Additionally, he has published many papers and monographs and has filed for multiple patents.

When discussing his decision to depart from Bristol Myers Squibb,

Richard Wang revealed, "I believed that China had reached a pivotal moment for R&D of innovative drugs, and I was eager to come back home. So, I attempted to persuade the company to establish an R&D center in China."

In the end, Bristol Myers Squibb did not set up an R&D center in China, but Richard Wang chose to return anyway.

During that period, several multinational pharmaceutical companies announced plans to initiate new drug R&D in China. Richard Wang then joined AstraZeneca and returned as one of the founding members of AstraZeneca's R&D center in China. It was 2007, and he had been away from his country for a full 24 years.

Drawing on his extensive experience in local R&D management of new drugs at AstraZeneca, GSK, and Cellular Biomedical Group (CBMG), Richard Wang has laid a solid foundation for his entrepreneurial endeavors and comprehensive business management.

"Cell" has been at the core of Richard Wang's interests since the day he began his studies in cell biology. As the founding president of Fosun Kite, he led the groundbreaking commercialization of the CAR-T product Yescarta® in China within an impressive timeframe of less than three years. His role was pivotal in overseeing the technology transfer, registration, clinical trials, manufacturing, and securing market approval from the National Medical Products Administration. His leadership was instrumental in realizing what is widely regarded as a miracle in cell therapy: the potential to cure cancer with a single injection.


Leaving Fosun and founding Neukio for the development of innovative CAR-NK therapy

In 2021, at the pinnacle of his career, Richard Wang left Fosun Kite to found Neukio (Shanghai) Biotherapeutics Co., Ltd. Taking on the positions of Chairman and CEO, he initiated the development of iPSCs-derived CAR-NK therapy.

His decision reflects a loftier ambition: instead of merely importing foreign blockbuster cell therapy drugs, he is dedicated to the independent development of innovative, next-generation immune cell drugs. His goal is to offer effective, accessible, and affordable treatments to cancer patients around the globe. Richard Wang has identified three key attributes of this innovative cellular drug: its versatility in application, its potential for mass production, and its efficacy in treating solid tumors.

 "CAR-T cell therapy is a form of immunotherapy that involves harvesting and modifying a patient's own T cells. It has proven to be very effective, even miraculously curing some patients. However, the personalized modification and custom preparation of autologous T cells come with an extremely high price tag. Treatment expenses, potentially amounting to millions, are well beyond what ordinary individuals can afford."

Richard Wang is deeply troubled by the thought of patients unable to afford treatment. He is actively investigating the possibility to develop a universal cell therapy product that could be mass-produced and made affordable to the general public. Compared to autologous products, allogeneic and universal therapies could not only reduce costs but also simplify the treatment process.

Unlike T cells, NK cells possess the innate ability to recognize and attack non-self cells without depending on the TCR. This capability enables their allogeneic application without the risk of attacking the host, laying the groundwork for the development of universal cell therapeutics. The shift from the CAR-T cells to the CAR-NK cells is undoubtedly a revolutionary exploration.

At the outset of its venture, Neukio secured a substantial angel round of funding amounting to USD 40 million led by Lilly Asia Ventures, with the participation of IDG Capital and Sherpa Capital. In June 2021, Neukio commenced full operation at Simbay Park in the Shanghai Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone. In September, the R&D laboratory was established and put into use. In October, the first batch of iPSC cell lines was banked. In December, Neukio celebrated the completion and inauguration of its integrated R&D and manufacturing center, spanning a total area of approximately 6,000 square meters. Within this space, around 1,000 square meters are allocated for early discovery laboratories, while 2,500 square meters are devoted to GMP clean rooms. The center is fully equipped to handle all Neukio's requirements, from process development to cell preparation, filling, and QC testing, supporting both R&D and the commercialization of Neukio's product pipelines.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are inherently collaborative pursuits. At present, Neukio has forged strategic alliances with a host of companies such as TTofflon, Biocytogen, ExCell Bio, Cytiva, EdiGene, Miltenyi Biotec, Sequanta, XinBio, and ACROBiosystems. Additionally, Neukio has joined forces with Thermo Fisher Scientific to establish a laboratory dedicated focused on the joint development of innovative process for cell immunotherapy.

"Independent innovation and global collaboration are essential for Neukio to swiftly progress to the forefront of the NK cell field and deliver benefits to patents as soon as possible."

By 2023, a mere two years since its inception, Neukio has already advanced its CAR-NK products to the animal testing phase.


Shanghai - the ideal hub for R&D and innovation

When asked why he chose Shanghai as the launchpad for his business after returning to China, Richard Wang responded, "I was born and raised here. Shanghai is my hometown." He further explained, "To successfully develop innovative drugs in China, a conducive environment is essential - one that offers robust support and a pool of talent. I have found that Shanghai is the ideal place for R&D and innovation."

After many years away, Richard Wang was delighted to find that Shanghai culture remains vibrant, and the city’s rapid development truly embodies inclusiveness and internationalization. "Shanghai offers an ideal environment for entrepreneurship, with its well-planned urban infrastructure and efficient city management, complemented by a diverse pool of talent."

Richard Wang's confidence has been significantly reinforced by the success of CAR-T therapy and the support from the Chinese Government for cell therapies, which has led to enhancements across the entire industry chain in China, encompassing both upstream and downstream. Richard Wang openly acknowledges that technological innovation comes with its share of uncertainties. Nevertheless, he has been lucky to secure support from various sectors in Shanghai throughout his journey of innovation and entrepreneurship. This backing has enabled the swift establishment of the Neukio team, allowing him to channel efforts into drug innovation.

As CAR-NK nears its clinical trial phase, this locally-developed innovative drug stands as a prime testament to the "Shanghai speed".

"If we maintain the current pace in completing Phases I and II of the clinical trials, we have the potential to file for market approval of CAR-NK within the fifth or sixth year of Neukio's operations. This would be several years ahead of our initial projections."

Richard Wang aspires to introduce the new drug first in China, with the intention of ensuring that Chinese patients are the first to benefit from a medication that is entirely innovated and developed domestically. This ambition aligns seamlessly with his original aspiration of providing the public with affordable drugs.


Originally published by Startup in Shanghai