Campus start-ups are keyThe pharmaceuticals market is worth more than the semiconductor and automobile sectors that currently support the Korean economy. The local industry has been challenging it for the last two decades but made little progress, until last year, when Hanmi Pharmaceutical landed a series of blockbuster license deals.
A number of smaller biomedicine companies this year won approval from the U.S. drug authority to market their products. The government announced measures to support the bioengineering and pharmaceutical sector to make it a new growth engine for the country. Their stocks rallied. The attention and fervor produced should help fuel the industry.
The Korean drug industry remained peripheral for several reasons. Local players lagged far behind in economies of scale as well as in funding and capabilities towards meeting the global clinical and manufacturing standards and management capacity to oversee the highly complicated specialty field. They have improved greatly in recent years and also benefit from outsourcing.
There can be two approaches to new development. It would be best to invent original and radical drugs with high economic value. U.S. biotechnology companies Genentech and Amgen turned big through milestone inventions. Another is to make a dramatic update to existing drugs. The returns would be smaller, but it’s less risky. Hanmi have made strides in such a way.
Korean companies do not attempt to develop patent medicines. The basic research and studies are the work of universities in Korea as well as other countries. Ventures in the United States and Europe have come from university lab works. Technology transfers can turn lab work into a lucrative business.
Local companies, however, dither in investing in university research. Funding becomes astronomical after basic research, but many works fail to stretch to clinical tests even when they get recognition from science publications.
Then the only way is to start one’s own business. The inventors should draw funds from angel or venture capital funding with their lab work and then begin early trials. The second phase is a critical point in testing the efficacy and safety of a new drug or treatment.
If effectiveness is proven in clinical trials, the startup with a patented treatment can earn big money by licensing out the cure or merging with a bigger company.
Korean universities do not turn out research that can actually be of help to everyday life because of two major drawbacks. Research tends to be pedantic because they are ranked by publication mentions. They therefore remain in the academic realm. The government only recently revised the system of recognizing research work. Second, there are few institutions in the university community that are future-looking. Universities in advanced economies have been providing theories and material that can contribute to the economy. But Korean universities still are engrossed with purely academic work and old-school values. Startup and practical research must be important factors in research evaluation.
Professors also should not be restrained by regarding business as an unscholarly path. In Seoul National University, only professors of associate or higher levels can start their own businesses.
A lecturer can become an associate around the age of 40. Younger people are made to study. But the young are more fearless and adventurous. Startups can only start with boldness. This is why older professors favor security and cannot come up with innovative or novel ideas. These drawbacks can be solved through the will of the university and department heads. That is, they can be easily achieved through the vision and will of university leadership.
The biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry is colossal and it is an area where well-educated and persevering Koreans can excel.
If universities take action and remove some of these barriers, they can greatly help the Korean bio industry.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 15, Page 33
*The author is a professor of biological sciences at Seoul National University.