- 2 years ago
10 September 2021
Xiaowei Shi has been working across the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region from her Sydney base for more than 20 years but it’s likely few outside the clinical trials sector are familiar with her. For those in the know, Shi has an enviable reputation built on an enduring passion for developing and delivering innovative new medicines to patients.
“As a doctor, I’ve seen patients pass away and have cried with their family but when you bring new treatments and see a patient’s tumour shrink, you think wow – that’s something cool. That’s something really amazing,” she says.
Now approaching six years at BeiGene, Shi was the company’s first Australian appointment and has largely built the local operation from scratch to a clinical team of more than 100 people – many at manager level averaging 15 years’ industry experience.
As executive director of BeiGene’s APAC clinical operations, Shi has also built a reputation as a leader with an exceptionally low staff turnover in a sector where 20 per cent is the norm, yet when she talks about leadership and the ‘magic’ that induces such strong loyalty, it is clear why Shi stands out from the pack.
For her, valuing her people doesn’t mean giving them days off, expensive corporate gifts, or wellness courses. It means respect and trust coupled with doing everything possible to make their career aspirations a reality.
Shi is a talented, intelligent leader driven by a love of her work. She describes herself as passionate but in a world where the word is so often overused, it doesn’t touch on the work ethic, purpose and determination which this woman so clearly embodies. Quite simply, Shi is extraordinary.
From Chinese doctor to clinical leader
As with any story, it’s good to start at the beginning, which for Shi was in Beijing where she completed her medical studies and commenced work as a doctor in the 1990s. It was a career her father had wished for her but which she soon realised was not her chosen path, so she moved into clinical trials. It was here she found her calling.
Completing a Masters in Biopharmaceuticals in Australia in the late 1990s, Shi opened a door on the Australian way of life and quickly fell in love with both her newfound land and her career.
“I realised I was more suited to a career that utilised my knowledge in medicine and in research,” she tells MedNews. “Clinical was a combination of both.”
Turning down the opportunity to do a PhD, a job advertisement for a Clinical Research Association (CRA) saw Shi take on her first pharma role working for Allergan in ophthalmology. The role required her to work across the APAC region where her Chinese heritage was a huge advantage – a fact not lost on a competitor, Parexel, who quickly poached her with an offer of another regional role.
“I really loved that work,” she says. “I matured in my career at Parexel and I learned a lot. As a contract organisation, we had a variety of companies with trials in different therapeutic areas, so my medical background helped. It was a lot of hard work. If we had a project deadline, I would stay in the office until past midnight as everything was collected and processed manually.
“I married the job. We would be in Taiwan one week, then Hong Kong the next, then in Singapore. We’d be gone for two or three months at a time, just me and my team. My son was young at the time, so my family helped me a lot but when I was home, I cooked.”
Word of Shi’s work ethic and growing reputation quickly spread and once again she was approached with an opportunity too good to pass up, moving to Actelion, again managing the region but with no staff in any of the countries where trials were being conducted.
“I’d be on the road for six weeks and go to six countries or regions, visit over 40, 50 hospitals. At night I would travel and write reports, which would take six or seven hours. I would go to the hospital and talk to the doctor. I felt so much excitement because the doctors were so interested – I loved that part.”
Building BeiGene’s Australian arm
After her years at Actelion, Shi landed at Inventiv Health – a CRO where one of her clients was the newly founded and rapidly expanding BeiGene, so it made sense when the company offered Shi a job establishing its Australian operation, she took the role on and began building the business.
“To be honest, it was not clear what the role was because there were so much to do. I just did whatever was needed – hands-on work, management work, I didn’t mind. I did everything – we didn’t have IT or HR or finance or regulatory. What I didn’t know, I would find out.”
Arguably now the top expert in APAC clinical trials, Shi says both BeiGene’s oncology focus and Australia’s clinical trials capacity offer opportunities unmatched elsewhere.
“Oncology is the most complicated clinical research area,” she explains. “It’s very innovative with so many new treatments and Australia is a wonderful country for trials but is facing challenges due to a skills shortage.
“Many trials are coming to Australia because sponsors realise Australia is a unique country in which to run early phase studies but, with border closures due to Covid, it is very difficult to get employees from overseas and it’s hard to accept fresh graduates because of the need for global learning and dealing with compliance.
“In oncology, we need people who have been CRAs for several years to run a study but we are facing this industry-wide resourcing challenge that we need to manage.”
Shi notes BeiGene’s reputation means she faces fewer staff resourcing issues than most but when asked about this, says her guiding principle is to treat others as you wish to be treated.
“I like people to treat me with respect and fairness and with a caring attitude so I treat people the same way,” Shi says. “I respect them, care for them – although care is more for their career development – I give them opportunities and I trust them to deliver.
“People are our asset. We want good people and by ‘good’ I mean professional, a hard worker and a team player with good technical skills. If someone has all these qualities, they’re the cream.
“In return, we give them the opportunity to work on innovative medicines, which in itself is very rewarding. We see such positive results, sometimes I have tears in my eyes because patients come back to a normal life. That’s very rewarding. We also take note of each person’s career aspirations and try to make them happy.
“It takes effort but they feel valued, feel that their career is being advanced. It’s a win-win situation.”
Giving back to Australia
Having recently moved house, Shi still loves cooking and spending time with her son. At 21, he is planning a medical research career with dreams of making a difference in neuroscience.
His mother also continues to dream, but now her dreams are about giving back to her adopted country and, perhaps not unexpectedly, it is in clinical trials where she is working to make this happen.
“I want Australia to lead the world in early phase clinical trials so I’ve attended overseas conferences, telling people to come to Australia to do clinical trials,” she says. “People ask if I’m afraid of bringing in trials that compete with BeiGene but I have a bigger view. It’s a win-win – we bring good quality trials here and Australian patients get early access to treatments. Both sides benefit.
“When you save a patient, you save a family. The impact is huge, especially with children. We cannot avoid disease but we can try to find a cure, a treatment that improves lives and saves people.”