16 Nov AiroAV Antivirus Declared: Bio industry leader says the future is big data, not new dr…
When it comes to Korea’s bio industry, the development of new drugs is always the focus of news reports. That sentiment has been boosted more than ever as domestic companies join the race to develop a Covid-19 treatment and vaccine.
But Korea Biotechnology Industry Organization (KoreaBIO) President Seo Jeong-sun thinks that big data, not drug development, should be the real focus of Korea’s bio industry, and it is here, Seo says, that Korea can really become a global leader in biotechnology.
KoreaBIO is a 12-year-old business advocate group of biotech firms, with Seo heading the organization for more than half of that period.
“The future of bio health care is in medical services,” he said. “The aging population is the biggest crisis of the 21 century. If people start living up to 120 years, that’s going to create medical costs that society can’t sustain. Predicting illnesses using gene data is important because it suggests a way to reduce that price.”
The biggest obstacles, however, are regulations and state officials who are not enthusiastic about changing old practices.
“Biotechnology is Korea’s last growth engine,” added Seo. “And we’re passing our golden hour.”
Seo himself is a prominent businessman in Korea’s biotech scene. His company Macrogen, where he serves as chairman, was the first bio venture in the country to go public on the secondary Kosdaq market in 2000. Operating across 153 countries, its main field of business is precision medicine, which refers to predicting potential illnesses based on genetic information.
A medical professor at Seoul National University with a specialty in genomic medicine, Seo was one of the first batch of national university professors to run a business using the outcomes of his lab — a practice that was only permitted in 1997 under a venture promotion act.
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Seo to look back at the past two decades of Korea’s bio industry, and consider where it stands today and the pending tasks to push further growth.
Below is an edited excerpt of the interview on Oct. 12.
Q. How would you summarize the past 20 years of Korea’s bio industry?
The bio industry wasn’t always popular. People associated drugs with the pharmaceutical industry, but not with bio. That changed in 2000 with the human genome project. This was the point when Koreans first started using the term biotechnology.
But as an industry, there were doubts for a long time. In the very early days, everybody thought the bio industry suggested a rosy future but years later, it turned out none of those firms were actually making money. Critics started saying it was all a scam and the bio venture boom withered away.
A second leap came in 2015 when Hanmi Pharmaceutical signed an 800 billion won ($717 million) license deal with Boehringer Ingelheim. That following year, Celltrion’s world-first antibody bio similar Remsima obtained sales approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These events cleared the fog in the industry.
Now Covid-19 has confirmed the strength of Korea’s biotech industry. But domestic firms also face challenges to overcome the high expectations, development costs and the race in time to develop vaccines against the pandemic.
Q. You seem to have high expectations for precision medicine. Why is this so?
The big revolution in medicine is being able to make predictions based on one’s gene data. Medical information in the past was about diseases, not the individual. That’s why we had to treat patients based on disease protocols without considering the person. Now, we can use one’s genetic sequence to predict which disease is likely to affect a person.
Our biggest issue since the new millennial is an aging population and the consequent spike in health care costs that society can’t sustain. Living up to 120 years may sound like a dream but in fact it’s a 21st-century crisis that could make governments bankrupt. Precision medicine is the answer to avoid that scenario.
Predicting diseases using one’s genetic information can push down medical costs, not only for the individual but on a social level. That’s biotechnology’s task as an industry, not just for profit-making but for the sake of human sustainability.
Q. Why do you think Korea has a chance to lead in this segment?
Korea has a strong foundation in life science and biotech research, which started in the 1990s with government funding. In medical services, Korean hospitals long adopted electronic medical records and charts, which set the grounds for data medicine. Genetic information has piled up as well thanks to years of bio venture investment in the field.
The past 20 years was a period of education. Macrogen showed that a business model using gene data can actually work. That pulled in a score of other companies to join the field but also trained investors showing what biotechnology is about.
Of course, there have been risks. I am aware of the game in the financial market where prices fluctuate and I think this should be contained. But uncertainty is inevitable in biotechnology: Nine out of 10 projects fail. Overall, Koreans now have a better understanding of what venture investment is, how this finance market works and a stronger urge to find potential companies in the bio field.
In short, we’ve reached a stage where the strong medical system, accumulated gene data and government investment could all work together to create a big…