The bio industry will make us proud

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The bio industry will make us proud

Park Sang-ook

The author is a professor of science and technology studies at Seoul National University.

If the letter “K” is to be attached to a word or phrase to brand it as Korean, the local bio industry deserves it considering its unique history of development. Most latecomers in industrialization followed in the footsteps of first movers, as seen in the long trajectory from agriculture to manufacturing to service industries. But the bio field is not easy to tackle, because it cannot be developed without a strong support from basic sciences. The bio industry does not allow shortcuts to advancement, either. Despite its competitiveness in the manufacturing sector, Korea could not acquire abilities to develop biotechnology, as it requires strengths in basic research in bioscience, chemistry and medicine. Actually, that ability cannot be attained in a short period of time.

Since launching its national-level R&D projects in the mid-1980s — about a century later than advanced countries — Korea focused on developing information technologies that have a relatively short life span in the market and are easy to overcome generational gaps in technology compared to other fields. It was arguably the best choice for Korea at the time. Then the country’s state-led projects helped expand the scope of its strategic research fields to promote basic research on leading technologies in academia like the G7 Project in the 1990s.

Local universities’ basic research was in full swing in the early 2000s after the initiation of the BK21 Project by the government. Yet, that’s not a sufficient time to build competitiveness in biotechnology. In the meantime, the United States, the UK, Germany and Russia succeeded in developing Covid-19 vaccines. As Korea failed to obtain sovereignty in biotechnology when the pandemic posed a real threat to national security, it was struggling to buy vaccines from advanced countries.

Until 2021, only seven new medicines developed by Korea were approved by the FDA. Yet new medicines are not everything in the bio industry. For instance, biosensors — a key instrument for test kits — and technology for medical devices are relatively easy to chase. Korea’s activation in the early 2020 of its stable diagnosis system for Covid-19 faster than other countries was possible thanks to such peripheral developments in the bio industry. Noticeable in particular was Korea’s manufacturing capability of biomedicines. Lee Jeong-dong, a Seoul National University professor of science and telecommunication, attributed the successful development of biosimilars and biomedicines to Korea’s high-level manufacturing ability built through the top-notch engineering processes in its semiconductor industry. It is not a coincidence that Samsung Biologics and SK Bioscience have chipmakers as the mainstay of the two business groups.

Conglomerates’ recent massive investment in the bio field reflects their confidence in medicinal production and their cooperation with a government poised to use the bio industry as the next growth engine for the economy. Large companies are entering the promising field more briskly than ever followed by joint launches of start-ups by universities and government-funded research institutes. Germany’s BioNTech (Pfizer vaccines), the UK’s Vaccitech (AstraZeneca) and the U.S.’s Moderna all originated on college campuses. Korea’s first-generation bio start-up Microgen and second-generation start-up Kolmarbnh are no exception.

Biological patents have high market value due to the unavailability of alternative technology. Korea’s innovation-friendly capital market welcoming emerging industries and new technologies offers a fertile ground for the growth of start-ups. Existing chemistry-based pharmaceutical companies are being reborn as bio companies. Simply put, a joint research system between universities and government-funded institutes has been established along with the alignment of science-based start-ups, small- and mid-sized companies, and large companies in the ecosystem.

Korea does not yet have a pharmaceutical company within the ranks of the top 50 in the world. That reality demands partnerships with Big Parma that can invest billions of dollars each year in developing new drugs and have global distribution networks. Here, the government’s role to financially support the private sector is important, as seen in its building of the infrastructure for clinical trials like the Korea National Enterprise for Clinical Trials (Konect) in 2007 and the Korea Drug Development Fund (KDDF) in 2011 to help share the risks of developing new drugs. As a result, the government spends more money today assisting the biotech sector than the IT sector.

In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated Korea a global hub for bio human resources. The pandemic has revealed unequal distribution of vaccines to countries, but local production will not only alleviate such inequality but also help respond to a global crisis of public health more effectively. WHO’s designation of Korea as a hub reflects its appreciation of the country’s dramatic transformation into a powerhouse for biomedicine production thanks to the unique path the country took to develop its bio industry. The feat earns the industry the prefix “K.”

As living a healthy life for long is a human instinct, the world cannot suppress the growing demand for reliable bio health industry despite all the cost and risks involved. Korea must find the next opportunity in the field after adroitly riding the global tide of IT revolution.
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