Dr Joseph Tam is indisputably one of the pioneers of Hong Kong’s biotech industry, having returned to Hong Kong in 1973 following an illustrious career in the US to bring in novel technologies to the city.
I feel happy that I have achieved my initial objectives: to bring international expertise and facilitate tech transfer into Hong Kong and China, to develop the biotech ecosystem in Hong Kong, and to create job opportunities for younger people
Joseph Tam, Pangenia
He reminisces, “I was born in 1938 in a little Chinese village during the Japanese occupation. Life was extremely difficult. In 1949, my eldest brother brought me along to Hong Kong to pursue a better life. However, he had to return home after a few months and I spent a few years on the streets until I was able to start my education at a free school. It was only through the immense support of my teachers, financial sponsorship and part-time work that I could finish my education in Hong Kong and subsequently attend UC Davis in the US. For this reason, I am deeply grateful for the opportunities that Hong Kong has given me and have always considered Hong Kong my home.”
He laughs, “when I retired in 2001, I still had a home in California and my children were there. Many Bay Area investors actually approached me to commercialize some of the technologies I had developed. I am sure that I would be very rich now if I had started my company in California! But I told myself, Hong Kong is my home, so if I am going to start a company, I should do it there.”
Pangenia Group was initially established as DiagCor in 2006, long before biotech became a buzzword in Hong Kong. Tam reflects, “people were very sceptical about high-tech enterprises, because they think, high-tech, high-yield but also high-risk. I wanted to disprove this and I think DiagCor’s successful growth in the past decade, along with the many jobs we have created, is a testament to our success. Over the past 12 years, DiagCor has worked hard to train and invest in the next generation of industry leaders and talents, some of which have in fact gone on to work for our competitors. But I see this as my contribution to the industry. It is critical that Hong Kong is able to foster the broader biotech ecosystem.”
Over a decade later, he concludes, “I feel happy that I have achieved my initial objectives: to bring international expertise and facilitate tech transfer into Hong Kong and China, to develop the biotech ecosystem in Hong Kong, and to create job opportunities for younger people. I have since stepped down as CEO to hand over the reins to the next generation, a highly capable executive team committed to leading DiagCor and Pangenia Group into the next stage of success and continue the legacy!
Dr Tam’s legacy and entrepreneur spirit resonates strongly with his successor, Dr Desmond Hau, who reveals his childhood dream to work in a high-tech industry: “During my student days, I had always imagined myself entering an industry of high-technology and science, but there was no possibility at that time in Hong Kong. Hence, I decided to create my own company, Bio-Gene Technology Ltd (Bio-Gene), going down the route of sales and marketing instead. Bio-Gene is a well-established laboratory equipment, reagents and consumables distributor that has been collaborating with Pangenia for years,” adding, “Along the way, Professor Tam approached me to develop the business further, especially focusing on the application of Diagcor’s platform technology to a molecular diagnostics service offering. After a small investment from Bio-Gene into Diagcor, I became one of the board members.” Finally, he exults, “in 2017, I was offered the CEO position for Pangenia Group, a high-tech company with several patented technologies as well as a strong drive for R&D and IP built into its core business model. It is exactly the company I wanted to work for years ago and I finally got a chance now!”
He is eager to continue Dr Tam’s legacy and take the business into a new era. He outlines, “I have a mission to grow Pangenia´s business and set the right strategic direction for the group. The best way moving forward to continue high quality R&D is to transfer technology from overseas to Hong Kong, and push this further into mainland China and Asia.”
Offering some insights into the booming – and increasingly competitive – diagnostics market, he details, “More often than not, the large multinationals operating in Hong Kong are focused solely on sales and marketing operations for particular instruments and reagents. However, we are more than a test provider. Our services come with high-quality reports and analysis. On the other hand, some local companies have tried to replicate our business model with overseas technology and a partner abroad that provides the analysis. This results in much longer waiting times for patients. Our expertise is developed in-house and therefore much more efficient in a long run.”
Looking ahead, Hau emphasises, “we are very open to partnerships and we welcome anyone looking at Pangenia to approach us to create new partnerships. I hope to see more innovation not only within the group, but also to see Hong Kong itself becoming a hub for biotechnology in Asia in the next five years.”