The rise of South Korean biotechnology is a recent one and goes back to the late 1990s when the first South Korean biotech company, Macrogen Inc. was formed. Since then, it has come a long way with its chairman and founder, Dr. Jeong-Sun Seo serving as the catalyst behind its growth. At the 2019 annual BIOPlus event, GeneOnline exclusively interviewed Dr. Seo, who is also the president of KoreaBIO (Korea Biotechnology Industry Organization).
Dr. Jeong-Sun Seo is a leading figure who has held esteemed positions throughout his career. He taught biochemistry and molecular biology at the Seoul National University for 43 years until he retired in 2017. He then moved to the Seoul National University Bundang hospital as a Distinguished Professor where he later assumed the position of Director, overseeing its Precision Medicine Center. In 1997, he founded the biotechnology company, Macrogen at the backdrop of a tumultuous economic crisis in South Korea.
Traditionally, academic faculty from Korean universities reserve themselves to research and teaching. They refrained from projects that led to commercial profits, since it was frowned upon by society and translating research into business was not allowed. However, in light of the financial crisis, the then South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung brought about many economic reforms. He called out to the Professors to participate in his efforts to get the country out of crisis and renewed several prevailing regulations. “It was during that time, I established Macrogen, which now has almost 23 years of history” Dr. Seo said.
In the year 2000, he established an association for Korean biotech venture capitalists. “We had six companies who donated a small sum of US$ 30,000 each.” By 2008, there were three different associations which eventually merged into KoreaBio, an organization where Dr. Seo has been serving as the president since inception. He feels that the merger was a successful move and it has really aided the biotech landscape in South Korea.
Macrogen – South Korea’s First Biotech
Dr. Seo recalled the past when Macrogen was founded and shared his experiences with us. “Macrogen was the first biotech company here in Korea and it went to IPO in the year 2000. It was quite legendary and it meant a lot for the Korean biotech industry. It was also the year when the human genome project was completed”. Macrogen was listed on the KOSDAQ in 2000, thereby becoming the first Korean biotechnology firm to raise funds through an IPO.
Dr. Seo was excited to share the story of how the initial stock value of 50 cents grew to the maximum limit of 15% every day and reached a high of US$ 186 after one month. This dramatic growth was unprecedented in the Korean stock market. “However, I didn’t sell even one stock. As a professor, I don’t like to make cash but rather I concentrated on building a company with values” he explained.
The Highlights of the BIOPlus Event
Dr. Seo feels that the special attribute of the BIOPlus event is the networking opportunities it creates for industry professionals. “It wasn’t easy in the beginning but this year we had almost 22,300 attendees.” He emphasizes that the style of the conference, including the plenary lectures, is different from other events. He cites the example of the keynote lecture given by Christopher Hansung Ko, CEO of Samsung BIOEpis. “He shared many of his own views on the future of biopharma, from biosimilars to immunotherapy, cell therapy, and gene therapy. He said that although at times, the technology is of high caliber, there are problems with commercialization. It is important to share such individual perspectives and I think that’s our achievement. Similarly, the other keynote lectures by Frank Emmrich, President of Biosaxony and the talk on gut microbiome by Wilhelm Holzapfel were very enriching” he added.
“Furthermore, we hosted a round table talk among Asian countries. Asia has a total of over 640 million people. Previously, Korea implemented a two-way business strategy, with China and Northern Asia. Now, we would like to push a new South strategy as well. Singapore, for example, has an environment similar to the west. On meeting the President of Thailand Bio, an organization similar to ours, I learned that Thailand has five countries they connect with. I now get the good impression that besides having a population of around 70 million, Thailand is central to connecting with those 5 countries as well. Then there is Malaysia with a high economy and Indonesia with a lower GDP but a large population. Furthermore, there is Vietnam which is also growing and Koreans know Vietnam very well, especially a lot of people can speak Vietnamese and do share similar characteristics. Besides, we have Burma, Laos, Cambodia and more. So, there are lots of countries with business potential and we would like to explore collaboration with their governments, starting from basic infrastructure. Last year, we also started Asia Biotech Leaders Network (ABLN) and we would like to continue working with them”.
Healthcare Expenditure – A Challenge for Us to Overcome in the Future
When queried about the future priorities of BIOPlus, Dr. Seo said that they would like to focus primarily on the BIO healthcare industry. He observes that many developed and developing nations suffer from the problem of increasing aging populations. He reasons that presently, the United States’ healthcare expenditure amounts to 18% of its GDP. If this prevails, it would shoot to 50% by 2050 to 2060. “I think Asian countries must take steps to improve healthcare by opting for safe, information-based telemedicine. We have to reduce the price of healthcare to one-tenth of what it is and that can be accomplished by reviving the regulations in each country. Startup ventures could utilize patient data collected from hospitals, but it is not straightforward because of privacy issues”.
When asked how can we achieve the goal of cutting costs, Dr. Seo states that healthcare service is the most important. “Even in the United States, some very wise doctors can provide great insights with the use of patient data. For instance, leading physician Eric Topol says we live in a world of ‘shallow medicine’. In his book Deep Medicine, he mentions that in order to achieve high-performance in healthcare, we need to turn to participatory medicine in the future. Valuable patient information accumulated as big data could be analyzed using artificial intelligence for disease prediction. This can greatly reduce the price of healthcare. I think with BIOPlus, we want to dedicate ourselves to the future of healthcare service”.
He further elaborated on the value that genetic information of distinct populations brings. “Asian populations have unique genetic signatures and therefore we need to develop predictive and personalized healthcare systems for our patients. I consider that to be the primary goal of our biotechnology process”. He concluded the interview by saying that Bio encompasses industry and not just a particular technology. So, we have to launch new startups that utilize these unique data sets from Asian populations to help achieve a standard of care that is high performing. To attain that goal, stakeholders from different countries need to come together for collaborative endeavors. That is what the BIOPlus event strives to achieve.
Editor / Thomas Huang
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