How can Korea’s chaebols influence global biotech and pharma development?

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Korea’s economy has been dominated for decades by chaebols, large family-owned business conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG, known for their hierarchical structures and success in Korea’s traditional sectors. However, a number of these big businesses are today making investments in the life sciences area – and those that started early are leading the pack: LG Life Sciences, for example, was the first Korean company to have a new drug approved by the US FDA.

In 2011 the country’s biggest chaebol, Samsung, created a joint venture with Biogen Idec to form Samsung Bioepis, an offshoot of the Samsung group dedicated exclusively to the research and development of biosimilars. By 2016, the company already expects to launch its first product. “Because of the Samsung brand on our back, we have been able to attract the best talent pools and that is where many other Korean CEOs’ biggest nightmare begins; attracting the right people,” says Christopher Ko, CEO of Samsung Bioepis. “When we announced the foundation of Samsung Bioepis, the development status of our project was at an early stage. But Biogen Idec saw our potential and our willingness to work hard. They believed our story because the Samsung group was behind it, and this has helped in terms of obtaining necessary technology and guidance. The Samsung brand will continue to place us at the forefront of the competition.”

Earlier, in 2009 MSD launched a partnership with Samsung to develop biosimilars. “At that time, MSD was just starting in biopharmaceuticals, and Samsung had not done much in healthcare,” explains Don Hyun, president of MSD Korea. “Nevertheless, Samsung came up with some in-licensed products and within a year and a half they had three promising molecules. By creating a global partnership, Samsung was able to carry out clinical valuation development and product registration, while MSD retained global commercialization rights. We are looking forward to the addition of those products towards the end of 2015.”

Although not a chaebol per se, KT&G, Korea’s biggest tobacco company, created its life sciences division in 2002 as a venture project that has dabbled in creating drugs across a wide spectrum of indications. James Jun, CEO of KT&G Life Sciences, stopped most of these projects to focus on just two products in depth. “The first project is mainly focused on accelerating biogenesis in mitochondria, which targets MELAS Syndrome,” he quips. “Our other project focuses on studying type 2 diabetes. I believe these two products have very new mechanisms for which the global market is demanding. If these projects succeed, KT&G Life Sciences will go for an IPO, at which point we will consider receiving funding from the outside and manage itself as a venture company.” Jun certainly hopes KT&G will develop the first Korean blockbuster.

Article written by Cameron Rochette

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