…Last year, pharmaceutical giant Merck announced plans for a research collaboration with BGI, as the Chinese company’s revenue hit $150 million—revenue projected to triple this year. “I admire their passion and the willingness to take risks,” says Steven Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon, adding that “it permeates the organization.”
Satellite research centers have been set up or are underway in the U.S., Europe, Hong Kong, and four other locations in China, and the number of researchers at the main headquarters in Shenzhen has more than doubled during the past year and a half. The institute now employs almost 4,000 scientists and technicians—and is still expanding.
“I’ve seen it happen but sometimes even I can’t believe how fast we are moving,” says Luo Ruibang, a bioinformaticist, who at 23, fits perfectly within the company’s core demographic. The average age of the research staff is 26.
Li Yingrui, 24, directs the bioinformatics department and its 1,500 computer scientists. Having dropped out of college because it didn’t present enough of an intellectual challenge, he firmly believes in motivating young employees with wide-ranging freedom and responsibility. “They grow with the task and develop faster,” he says. One of his researchers is 18-year-old Zhao Bowen. While still in high school, Zhao joined the bioinformatics team for a summer project and blew everyone away with his problem-solving skills. After consulting with his parents, he took a full-time job as a researcher and finished school during his downtime. Fittingly, he now manages a project on the genetic basis of high IQ. His team is sampling 1,000 Chinese adults with an IQ higher than 145, comparing their genomes with those of an equal number of randomly picked control subjects. Zhao acknowledges that such projects linking intelligence with genes may be controversial but “more so elsewhere than in China,” he says, adding that several U.S. research groups have contacted him for collaboration. “Everybody is interested in intelligence,” he says.
Knowledge, information, innovation, these are the only ways that the human race will beat back the Malthusian trap in our age. The world is aging now, and many nations will be moving past peak labor soon. We’ll need to be squeeze more productivity our of fewer at some point.