Shortly after the Chinese Cultural Revolution — a decade that saw the brutal persecution of intellectuals — China reversed course and started seeking foreign brainpower to help salvage its ravaged economy. As part of Deng Xiaping’s sweeping economic reforms, the state began sending its most promising students to overseas universities. “When our thousands of Chinese students abroad return home, you will see how China will transform itself,” Deng proudly told a U.S. diplomat.
Wenyuan Shi, whose parents were professors sent to re-education camps during the revolution, was among the first wave of students selected to pursue graduate studies in America. He boarded a plane in 1985, and earned a PhD in genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991.
But Shi never did contribute to the Chinese economic miracle. Despite his participation as a boy in the Little Red Guard, a kids’ faction of the Maoist student revolutionary organization, and despite his later reluctance to go to America “because,” as he explains it, “who wants to be dropped behind enemy lines?,” Shi nonetheless became one of the tens of thousands of Chinese students who, to his government’s embarrassment, chose not to return home.
China’s loss, however, was America’s gain. Shi went on to launch C3J Therapeutics, a biotechnology company that’s developing a drug to prevent tooth decay and oral infections, health issues that collectively cost Americans $60 billion a year. “We’re certainly expecting the value we created is more than the investment,” says Shi. “Once it gets to market, it’s definitely a multibillion-dollar blockbuster.”
The drug is currently being tested in clinical trials for use in humans. Ideally applied via a strip during regular dentist checkups, the drug changes the microbial composition in the mouth, selectively killing the bacteria that causes decay while sparing the healthy, beneficial microflora our mouths need. “We essentially develop a smart drug that only kills the weed,” Shi says. “The technology we started was for tooth decay, but we’ve opened the door to treating other diseases as well.”
The reason America is able to remain cutting edge is because we are attracting the brains of the world. I think we should use the system to serve U.S. interests rather than to send needed immigrants back.
Shi expects the Food and Drug Administration to clear the drug for Phase 3 testing later this year, at which time C3J Therapeutics plans to make an initial public offering (IPO) and hire additional staff. The company currently has 50 full-time employees and up to 15 consultants at a time in the United States. Since its founding in 2007, it has raised close to $140 million from dental insurers and government sources.
In addition to his work for C3J Therapeutics, Shi is a professor of microbiology at the University of California, Los Angeles; the co-author of more than 250 scientific articles; and the co-inventor of more than 50 patents. One of those patents is for a lollipop used to prevent tooth decay. Created from the extract of a licorice root, the herbal dental candy is now being sold under the brand name Loloz by co-owner HealthyGrid, a subsidiary of a Portland, Oregon, health insurance company.
Shi is now an American citizen, but it took him more than 15 years to realize this dream. He has also experienced frustrations with the immigration system at his company. At times, he has wished to employ high-skilled immigrants but has been unable to get them the proper visa.
“The reason America is able to remain cutting edge is because we are attracting the brains of the world,” he says. “I think we should use the system to serve U.S. interests rather than to send needed immigrants back.”
In China, meanwhile, the government has been trying to get foreign entrepreneurs to immigrate, and has succeeded in luring high-tech firms and foreign capital to its major cities and science parks. It’s all part of a broader strategy of “opening up” to global markets that’s ushered in a 10 percent average annual growth in GDP since 1992.
“Really the only thing they did right, in terms of the Chinese government, is to welcome people who are educated,” says Shi. “Beijing and Shanghai are now global melting pots.”