A passion for science, business, and American culture has propelled Hui “Debra” Cen (ScDHy ’91) to a sweet spot. Having sold one successful biotech start-up and handed off another, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur is now turning her attention to a high-tech way to promote the cultural strength of the United States and China to each other.
It’s a natural progression for the 50-year-old Cen, who first flew from China to the United States to enroll in the Graduate School of Public Health in 1986, after completing undergraduate work at Xiamen University and spending two years in the master’s program at Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “I came to the U.S when I was 23. I remember the plane ride,” she laughs. “Even then, my dream was to start a company, though I had no idea what kind. It was definitely in my mind.”
Cen’s undergraduate experience had already put her on the path to a career-long interest in the molecular mechanism of diseases.
“One of my professors at Xiamen University was very influential. I remember him using the example of sickle cell anemia, explaining how it was caused by the mutation of amino acid in hemoglobin protein, and therefore caused whole blood cell to malfunction. I fell in love with modern biology in his classroom.”
Cen’s business dream was deferred while she earned her ScD in infectious diseases and microbiology (IDM)—specifically molecular virology—at Pitt. After a stint at the National Institutes of Health researching cellular oncology, she moved to the University of California, San Francisco, working with signal transduction pioneer Lewis T. “Rusty” Williams. Along with 14 other members of his staff, she followed Williams to what was then Chiron Corporation. The Silicon Valley environment reawakened her dream to launch a company, and she and partner Li Shen launched SABiosciences, creating pathway-specific gene and protein array products. A decade later, the firm was acquired by QIAGEN for $97 million.
“Entrepreneurship is so appealing because I feel I can instantly make decisions and influence the whole thing. In Silicon Valley, the whole culture is like that,” she says.
After returning briefly to her homeland in 2002, Cen became involved with Biotium, a fluorescent dye company, and later spun off a second start-up, LEAP Biosciences. The firm has developed several novel multiplex protein detection technologies, which she says LEAP is looking into licensing.
Describing herself as a “retired entrepreneur,” Cen now hopes to encourage a dialogue between Chinese and U.S. cultures, promoting recognition of the best elements of each.
“U.S. society offers transparency, free thinking, taking risks, meritocracy—all great things. The Chinese emphasize discipline, education, and personal responsibility.” She hopes to encourage other immigrants to contribute not just in the American workplace, but also in schools and the community.
Cen is an active donor to Pitt Public Health, which started her career with a full scholarship and student stipend. “Twenty-seven years ago, my parents couldn’t have helped me very much—they could only buy my plane ticket to the U.S. Once I started at Pitt, I was the wealthiest person in my family. It changed my life, and I really appreciate that.” She fondly remembers Robert Yee, an IDM department chair and mentor. “When Dr. Yee retired, he started a fund for students from his savings. I was moved by his generosity. So when I was able, I made my first donation to the Dr. Yee fund.” Last year, Cen made a gift to the capital campaign that will support significant upgrades to the school’s existing facilities. Taking advantage of the Elizabeth L. and John P. Surma matching gift*, Cen has the opportunity to name a new classroom in the renovated building.
Overall, Cen is both grateful and pragmatic about her career. “I’m really thankful. I’ve been blessed with good luck—half good luck, and half hard work. If you don’t work hard, you have no luck.”