John Oyler, co-founded the Beijing-based biotech BeiGene in 2010 with the idea of building a global biopharmaceutical company in China and running clinical trials of an international standard there. With his entrepreneurial background and knowledge of China and its life sciences ecosystem, Oyler has led the company through its consolidation and expansion, doubling BeiGene’s sales in 2022.
I wanted to build something here —in China — that is lasting, impactful, involved in great science, and can really help people
John Oyler, CEO, BeiGene
Oyler, an American who did not come with the typical string of life sciences leadership positions that usually constitute CEO material, began his career as a consultant. Yet his beginnings were already preparing him for what was to come. While working for McKinsey in the 1990s he began travelling to China and then began developing an interest in the biopharma industry at Genta, a biotech working in oncology.
After successfully founding the consumer telecom research firm Telephia, which was later sold to Nielsen for USD 449 million, Oyler went back to the industry and to China to found the drug discovery outsourcing company, BioDuro, in 2005, which he then sold to PPD Inc. for USD 77 million in 2010. And while in China, he met the well-respected scientist, Xiao Dong Wang, from the National Institute of Biological Sciences (NIBS) in Beijing. Wang was later approached by an investor who wanted to bring Oyler onboard with the idea of starting a biotech to quickly sell it to big pharma.
Instead of joining that project, Oyler and Wang decided they wanted to build their own firm and, for once, in Oyler’s case, not onload it to another company. “I didn’t want to put in the energy it takes to build something only to eventually give it up for adoption. I wanted to build something here —in China — that is lasting, impactful, involved in great science, and can really help people,” said Oyler in a 2019 interview.
Built around the concept of doing world-class research and clinical trials in China, while retaining costs and in anticipation of the Chinese healthcare system’s reimbursement of innovative drugs, BeiGene was born. Having already set up a company in China, Oyler knew what to expect. “When starting a company in China, nothing happens quickly, and there are mounds of paperwork to submit,” he explains. “There are licenses needed for everything, and you have to do the steps in the right order, and then wait.”
BeiGene soon developed ties with Merck, who invested USD 20 million in the new biotech yet still allowed the co-founders to retain control. “We had advisors and asked for a lot of advice, as we didn’t think we knew everything, but we operated fairly unencumbered and had the freedom and flexibility to drive the business until we eventually began taking professional investments,” Oyler stated.
Missteps and Successes
Despite a few in-licensing missteps, specifically a couple of later-stage assets from Janssen that turned out to be flops, the company has racked up commercial wins, particularly with its cancer drugs, Brukinsa and Tislelizumab. Global sales, thanks to these two drugs alone, nearly doubled in 2022, bringing revenues up to USD 1.3 billion.
Brukinsa (zanubrutinib), a small molecule inhibitor of Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK), has been approved in over 65 global markets and has just received a new approval in the US. Tislelizumab, a humanized IgG4 anti-PD-1 monoclonal antibody, has been approved in China for 10 indications and is under development for additional approvals globally.
BeiGene partnered with Novartis on tislelizumab in North America, Europe and Japan in 2021. The drug is coming up to an FDA target date for its initial application in previously treated esophageal squamous cell carcinoma and if approved, would be BeiGene’s first biologic product in the US, although the company already markets its Brukinsa for certain blood cancers there.
The US has been on BeiGene’s expansion radar for some time and the company already operates five offices in the country in addition to its 30+ offices across the world and its manufacturing sites in Suzhou and Guangzhou, China.
BeiGene’s American expansion efforts have been complicated, however, by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) threat to delist China-based outfits like BeiGene from the Nasdaq because of a lack of access to their books. The company has taken steps to comply to the commission’s rules. “We’ve addressed the issue,” Oyler said, claiming that unlike other firms operating out of China and listed in the US, BeiGene is a global organization.