Looking ahead to the Hong Kong International Biotechnology Convention (BIOHK2023) taking place between 13-16 September 2023 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, three of the event’s leading lights told PharmaBoardroom about the work that has been done so far to establish Hong Kong as a biotech and innovation hub, how the city is creating a culture of commercialisation and translational research to capitalise on its academic excellence, and their hopes for this year’s conference.
Developing ‘Asia’s World City’ into a Biotech Hub
Hong Kong has developed into an outstanding business and investment hub, according to Albert YU, chairman of the Hong Kong Biotechnology Organization (HKBIO) and president of BIOHK2023. He suggests that the geopolitical and COVID-related challenges that the city has faced in recent years have obscured the success that it has already achieved as ‘Asia’s World City’ – a slogan promulgated by the Hong Kong government shortly after the territory’s transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997.
“Building on our openness to the world and strong legal system [under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, Hong Kong is part of China but maintains its own economic and administrative systems, separate to those on the mainland – Ed.], Hong Kong has been able to establish itself as Asia’s – and one of the globe’s – leading financial centres. This has led to the creation of other hubs in areas such as logistics,” proclaims YU. “While we are relatively small, we do things with a great deal of efficiency. Hong Kong was built as a place for business and continues to fulfil that role today.”
While we are relatively small, we do things with a great deal of efficiency. Hong Kong was built as a place for business and continues to fulfil that role today
Albert YU, chairman, HKBIO & president, BIOHK2023
However, for most of its history Hong Kong has not focused on innovation in the sense of developing its own products and solutions, meaning that its output in fields like biotech has thus far been relatively limited. Although some Hong Kong-developed companies have made it to the commercial stage, the city is yet to produce a globally relevant biopharmaceutical player. “Hong Kong has long had a strong tradition in finance and real estate,” begins Maki WAN Mu, VP of BIOHK2023. “However, innovation was never really talked about, and the ecosystem was not set up for it.”
She continues, “this has changed in recent years, with Hong Kong identified in China’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) as a national innovation centre and with high-level plans put in place to make it the biotech centre within the Greater Bay Area [an 86-million-person megalopolis consisting of nine cities in southern China’s Guangdong Province along with the special administrative regions (SARs) of Hong Kong and Macau – Ed.]”
Commercialising Academic Excellence
Building a globally competitive biotech ecosystem with the academic, infrastructural, financial, and cultural factors that entails, does not happen overnight. Hong Kong does though boast a high degree of strength on the academic side of things, with five universities in the global Top 100 despite its diminutive stature, and a weighty scientific tradition behind it. What is often lacking is the nous and experience to translate scientific discoveries into products on the market serving patients, according to HKBIO Vice Chairman Wilton CHAU.
“It is a pity that we have all these high ranking professors in Hong Kong who have developed innovative technologies but do not know how to commercialise them,” says CHAU, who also serves as chairman of the Pan Asia Venture Development Platform and an adjunct professor of the Department of Finance at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, Shenzhen Finance Institute, and CUHK Shenzhen.
Part of the biotech ecosystem building therefore is giving these professors the capability and framework to take their discoveries further along the road from the lab all the way to patients and the market. CHAU explains that he “recently organised a three-day workshop for professors about how to start their own bioventures. As academics, they are averse to uncertainty and so should focus on the scientific side of things where they are more secure. To take their projects further, they need commercial teams which can develop and execute business plans as well as fundraise. This way, they can keep their stable and well-paid academic jobs and become the chief scientific officer for the company that emerges from their initial research, taking a share of any eventual profits.”
The city already serves as a financing hub for biotech companies coming from mainland China, with 56 such firms having listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX) since a new listing regime for pre-revenue biotech companies (Chapter 18A) in February 2018. Despite a disappointing 2022 in terms of listings, Hong Kong is still the fastest-growing and world’s second-largest biotech funding hub.
Why Hong Kong?
The rise of China, and more broadly of Asia, has been perhaps the most remarkable economic story of the past half century. However, with biotech innovation still predominantly emanating out of the most well-established global hubs in Boston and the Bay Area in the US as well as a host of European clusters, why should investors and global companies look towards Asia, and Hong Kong in particular?
Access to, and knowledge of, the Chinese market is an important first point, according to CHAU. “China will soon be one of the biggest biotech markets in the world, but – although science supposedly knows no boundaries – the cultural differences between China and the West are still huge. Therefore, Hong Kong is sure to be an important location for biotech companies’ first steps into, or outside of, China thanks to our history and system with a blend of both Western and Chinese cultures.”
Hong Kong is sure to be an important location for biotech companies’ first steps into, or outside of, China thanks to our history and system with a blend of both Western and Chinese cultures
Wilton CHAU, vice chairman, HKBIO
CHAU suggests that Hong Kong biotech can also be a good choice for increasingly deep-pocketed Asian venture capital (VC) funds and angel investors. “Monitoring projects on the other side of the world involves frequent and often inconvenient travel for investors,” he says. “If a strong ecosystem exists here in Hong Kong, then Asian investors will be much keener to invest in it.”
There is also a compassionate element to investing in Asia rather than remaining only in the US or Europe. YU suggests that “for those of us involved in the biotech and healthcare sectors, we should have a vision for our products and services benefiting mankind, beyond making money alone. Healthcare is a global issue that requires global solutions and collaborations, as the COVID-19 pandemic showed, and stakeholders from across the world need to come together to drive change.”
BIOHK2023: A New Era?
Looking towards BIOHK2023, WAN is excited about the opportunities for collaboration that the conference presents. “With a platform like this which brings together researchers, investors and entrepreneurs, Hong Kong can act as a ‘superconnector’ between people and geographies and help generate new ideas,” she notes. “Having regularly attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, I am well aware of the impact that these platforms can have in terms of bringing people together, sharing knowledge, and creating new solutions.”
Hong Kong can act as a ‘superconnector’ between people and geographies and help generate new ideas
Maki WAN Mu, VP, BIOHK2023
YU concludes that “there will be sessions on policy direction, regulatory alignment, and specific therapeutic areas such as cancer at BIOHK2023. All of this creates a great deal of opportunity and potentially represents the beginning of a new era for Asian biotech.”