Case | HBS Case Collection | February 2014

BGI: Data-driven Research

by Willy Shih and Sen Chai

Abstract

BGI has the largest installed gene-sequencing capacity in the world, and to Zhang Gengyun, general manager of the Life Sciences Division, this represented an opportunity to apply his training as a plant breeder and his early career work as a biochemist to improving important parts of the world food supply. But his biggest challenge was in scaling up his organization to address the multitude of opportunities he wanted to address. Along with its massive investments in gene sequencing machines and computing resources for data analysis, BGI had built a large cadre of data scientists who could develop and run programs to sift through the mountains of genetic data that were being generated every day. But the approach raised other questions. Could people trained in traditional fields of botany, biochemistry, and animal husbandry simply use the BGI sequencing platform as a black box, much as people in other industries relied on specialization and a modular division of labor? Or did it take the kind of cross-training and cross-boundary work in which Zhang himself had invested two decades of his professional career? Could the data scientists in BGI's "factory" grow sufficiently to understand the science, and was that now even necessary?

Keywords: genomics; gene sequencing; life sciences; plant breeding; genetics; Human Genome Program; Beijing Genomics Institute; BGI; rice genome; Technological Innovation; Innovation Strategy; Research; Research and Development; Science; Genetics; Science-Based Business; Strategy; Commercialization; Corporate Strategy; Technology; Information Technology; Software; Agriculture and Agribusiness Industry; Biotechnology Industry; Food and Beverage Industry; China; United States;

Citation:

Shih, Willy, and Sen Chai. "BGI: Data-driven Research." Harvard Business School Case 614-056, February 2014.