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When Frank Pitzer first visited China, in 2000, he could tell the country was developing rapidly by looking at the infrastructure being built.
Two years ago, when he officially relocated to the country as general manager of Swiss healthcare giant Roche Diagnostics" new factory in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, development was still the theme, but with "tremendous changes" due to a new focus on research and development.
Pitzer joined in the Suzhou project in October 2013. He flew regularly to China for preparatory work in 2015 and moved to the city in early 2016 to break ground on the project.
He said the new position was exciting, because "very few people have the privilege to build a factory from scratch".
Roche Diagnostics Suzhou, the company"s first production base in the Asia-Pacific region, is scheduled to roll out its first products for sale in Asia this year.
The investment in the new factory, covering some 48,000 square meters in the 24-year-old China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park, was about 450 million Swiss francs ($472 million). When completed, it is expected to employ about 400 local people.
In the long-run, production of 102 products for the Asian market, targeting metabolic, cardiovascular and hepatic diseases, among others, will be transferred from Germany to the Suzhou factory.
Pitzer has established a five-person R&D team in Suzhou that is likely to expand. The facility is already cooperating with local universities and professors in other parts of the world in the hope of building up Roche"s R&D strength in China.
"We want to make sure that the interests of Chinese patients will be better reflected within the global development framework," Pitzer said.
He said he had noticed a significant improvement in the quality of Chinese academic studies and the output of China"s universities over the past three years, laying a solid foundation for good R&D work.
However, while innovation was happening in China, it was doing so in a spotty, uncoordinated manner, Pitzer said. "But things will change given all the investments that China has made in universities and institutions, and in industries such as healthcare and life science."
Former science and technology minister Wan Gang said early this year that China"s investment in R&D last year rose 14 percent year-on-year to 1.76 trillion yuan ($279 billion) - which was 2.1 percent of the country"s GDP.
According to World Bank statistics, spending on R&D in the United States in 2015 equaled 2.8 percent of that country"s GDP, compared with 2.9 percent in Germany and 3.3 percent in Japan.
"China should become one of the leading countries in terms of innovation, and grow into a major technology driving force worldwide by 2050," Wan said.
While China may have begun focusing on innovation later than some other countries, Pitzer said there is no significant gap between China and those countries in terms of infrastructure and critical thinking.
"For science practitioners, critical thinking is vital," he said. "I do see that among the employees in our facility. They can make their own decisions and apply knowledge when necessary.
"China is doing everything right. A lot of innovation will come from the country in the future. It won"t take long."