Over a fast-moving 36-hour visit, two high-ranking officials from a Chinese city of 34 million people saw a genomic research project in Manhattan before arriving in Buffalo, where they dined at the Buffalo Club, stopped by a chemistry lab on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, looked in on a University at Buffalo supercomputer and took a bus tour of the massive solar panel factory now under construction in South Buffalo.
Chongqing, the officials’ hometown, has a Midwestern sensibility and a booming economy rooted in advanced manufacturing, the automobile industry, tourism and the life sciences – in other words, it’s a much bigger, faster-growing version of the Buffalo Niagara region.
That’s why Queen City business leaders and economic-development officials welcomed the Chongqing administrators to Buffalo and why, even though no announcements were made Tuesday, they hope that the visit leads to closer economic ties among Buffalo, New York State and China.
“You build trust and you build credibility and you build personal relationships and you build respect, and those are all the foundations of building business and a business relationship,” Howard A. Zemsky, president and CEO of Empire State Development, said in an interview. “So, over the course of a day and a half, I think we went from being strangers to being friends.”
The Chongqing officials – Yang Liqiong, deputy director general of Chongqing’s Economic and Information Commission, and Dr. Li Xiaoping, director of the province’s Food and Drug Administration – came at the invitation of executives from Athenex, formerly Kinex, the biotech startup located on the Medical Campus.
Athenex recently acquired a Chinese manufacturer of ingredients used in cancer drugs that is based in Chongqing, and the company is in discussions to build a major drug manufacturing plant in the province in southwest China.
A number of Athenex officials visited Chongqing in late July, said Teresa Brophy Bair, the company’s senior vice president for corporate development and legal affairs, and local officials were generous hosts. “We’re very optimistic that other companies can take advantage of the same model,” said Bair, who helped organize the Chinese visit to New York.
Yang and Li broke off from the delegation that came to the United States as part of this week’s official state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. They first went to Manhattan, where they saw part of the cross-state, $105 million genome research project that links scientists and physicians in New York City with researchers and a supercomputer in Buffalo.
On Monday evening, after arriving in Buffalo, the group had dinner at the Buffalo Club with Mayor Byron W. Brown, Zemsky, who also joined the group in Manhattan, and other guests. The group talked about joint efforts to promote tourism in Buffalo and Chongqing, which is known for its hot springs and spas.
“So far, she has been really impressed by the beautiful city, the Great Lakes, and she also was really impressed by the hospitality, the people,” Yang said in an interview, as translated by Dr. Johnson Y.N. Lau, chairman and CEO of Athenex. “The people are very warm, she felt very welcome, and she felt that there will be a very good, long-term, collaborative relationship between the two communities.”
Yang then recalled a joke she made to Brown at Monday’s dinner.
“If she can convince 34 million people to come to Buffalo, you probably will need to build more hotels,” Yang said through Lau.
On Tuesday morning, the group started their tour of the Medical Campus at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, where Athenex is headquartered, followed by a visit to UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, where Norma J. Nowak, the center’s executive director, discussed with Yang and Li its potential to power advances in personalized cancer treatments.
Athenex researchers have worked in the bioinformatics center and with its Center for Computational Research, a supercomputer, for years. “It’s a great story,” Nowak said.
Yang then warmly invited Nowak to come to Chongqing to see for herself the promise for life sciences breakthroughs in that region.
Afterward, Christina P. Orsi, UB’s associate vice president for economic development, gave the visitors an overview of the university’s role in scientific research and economic development in the region, including a time-lapse, bird’s-eye map that showed progress and construction on the Medical Campus from 2002 to 2017.
One member of the group, Jinn Wu, a member of Athenex’s board of directors, looked at the image and quipped, “So where’s the football stadium?”
UB, in fact, was the first American university to forge substantial academic ties with China, in 1980, according to the university, and it has a large and active alumni chapter in Beijing. Today, 1,625 Chinese students attend the university.
“Buffalo is recognized, and people (in China) know where it is … just because of this long-standing presence and engagement with China,” John J. Wood, senior associate vice provost for international education, said in an interview.
The Chongqing group later went to Roswell Park Cancer Institute to see where patients who participate in clinical trials for drug candidates are brought in. They moved on to City Hall and then a bus tour of the SolarCity solar panel factory now under construction on South Park Avenue. They had lunch at Larkinville and will catch up with the larger Chinese delegation in this country Wednesday.