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Korea Pavilion half full at big pharmaceutical fair

As the companies gain on global competitors, more success expected

Nov 08,2019
View of the Korea Pavilion at the Convention on Pharmaceutical Ingredients (CPhI) Worldwide 2019 held in Frankfurt. A total of 35 companies from Korea sets up their booths at the pavilion to market their products and seek new business opportunities. [KO JUN-TAE]
FRANKFURT - With crowds thin in the Korea Pavilion at the Convention on Pharmaceutical Ingredients (CPhI) Worldwide, it’s fair to ask whether Korea is a major player yet in the market.

But if success is really 90 percent about showing up, then the country is well on the way to becoming a global pharmaceutical leader.

“In the early 2000s, there were fewer than 20 Korean companies participating in CPhI Worldwide,” said Kim Kwan-sung, executive vice president of the Korea Pharmaceutical Traders Association (KPTA), on the sidelines of CPhI Worldwide 2019 on Tuesday.

At this year’s convention, held from Tuesday to Thursday in Frankfurt, around 70 companies had booths for business meetings and marketing efforts.

“This conference provides a good opportunity for companies to showcase their products and market themselves, so as Korea’s pharmaceutical industry has grown over the years, the number of exhibitors and visitors from Korea has increased as well.”

The Korea Pavilion is organized by the KPTA and the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra). It has a total of 35 Korean companies chosen by the two organizations.

“Korea’s domestic market size is small, so more and more companies are participating in international conferences like this to export their products,” Kim said.

“As a result, export volume for Korean biopharmaceutical products has increased over the years and gained a better reputation in the global market.”

According to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, Korea’s biopharmaceutical product export volume has increased an average of 17.9 percent a year between 2014 and 2018. The country’s total biopharmaceutical product export reached $4.67 billion last year, up 14.8 percent from $4.1 billion reached in 2017.

The size of the Korea Pavilion at CPhI Worldwide has steadily expanded from just 300 square meters (3,229 square feet) when it first opened in 1999 to a little less than a thousand square meters this year.

“Perception toward Korean products has grown very positive as well,” said Choi Yong-hee, export promotion team leader at KPTA.

“In Asia, Japan, which probably has the third-largest pharmaceutical market in the continent, maintains higher quality on medical goods than us. But excluding that, Korea’s pharmaceutical products are considered to be very high standard.”

Considering the sector’s sustained export growth, the Korean government is expanding its budgetary support to promising players. To grow the local biopharmaceutical industry, it is committing a total of 477.9 billion won ($412 million) this year, up 10.5 percent on year.

Yet KPTA says that the competency of the Korean biopharmaceutical sector is still below the levels of those from the United States and Europe, both of which have gigantic players with blockbuster drugs made with high-level expertise and years of experience.

“It’s true we saw some positive indications for the future of the Korean biopharmaceutical industry, but the technical competency level in making drugs is really in the mid-range on a global scale,” Choi said.

Unlike the massive booths for leading European pharmaceutical companies, which were often packed with potential buyers and visitors waiting to sit down for meetings, the Korea Pavilion was rather less jammed and had more breathing room.

Many of the 35 companies at the pavilion said that even though there were interested customers from all around the world, many of those potential buyers were not from European.

Rather, a large number of the visitors were from other countries in Asia and from Africa, looking to import Korean products for their domestic consumption.

Choi also believes that there is a huge gap in sales numbers and investment amounts between leading players from Korea and those from countries with advanced pharmaceutical industries.

That gap is seen to remain for some time.

“It’s true that recognition toward Korean products has grown, but Korean companies are not so big in sales yet,” Choi said.

“Many famous global players are in the United States and Europe. They would be spending trillions of won per year in developing drugs, but in Korea, there aren’t even that many companies reaching 1 trillion won in annual sales.”

This rather disappointing reality is actually a huge jump from what Korea used to be in terms of biopharmaceutical competency just a few decades ago, which is when the country had no option but to focus on exporting basic drug materials, KPTA said.

“In the past, through the early 1980s, Korea mostly focused on selling low-level drug materials,” Kim said.

“As environmental regulations became stricter and the country’s manufacturing capability became more developed, Korea started concentrating more on value-added drug products that require more complicated technological processes.”

According to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, the manufacturing volume of drug products reached 18.5 trillion won last year, up 5.7 percent from 17.6 trillion won in 2017. During the same period, drug material production volume fell 8.7 percent on year to 2.6 trillion won.

And as more Korean companies make their own efforts to export more of their products to other countries and even try to excel in unconventional sectors like biotech, Kim believes there still is a great potential for Korea to continue its steady growth.

“The country is on a learning curve at this point, and that’s a good sign, as that kind of story exists for all industries,” Kim said, in regard to the recent setbacks in drug development faced by companies like Kolon Life Science, Helixmith and SillaJen.

“Right now, companies like Celltrion and Samsung BioLogics are making high value-added products like biosimilars and seeing visible growth levels.

If given more time, biopharmaceutical products from Korean companies will gain more edge to compete on a global scale.”

To achieve that competitiveness on the global front, he believes that much more support and investment from the government are necessary, which will provide a base for local players to ramp up their hiring efforts and research initiatives.

“Right now, Korean biopharmaceutical companies should be looking beyond the domestic market and focussing on expanding their reach to foreign markets,” Kim added. “That battle ultimately comes down to money. They should be aided by vigorous financial support and investment from the government.”

BY KO JUN-TAE [ko.juntae@joongang.co.kr]


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