South Korea has carved a place for itself as a dominant player in the global pharma and med-tech manufacturing industry with national companies Samsung Biologics and Celltrion leading the way.
In 2019, the South Korean government announced a USD 1.7 billion five-year plan to fund biotech-related projects with the intention of helping the country capture 6 percent of the global pharma and med-tech manufacturing industry, as well as ensuring that home-grown startups received sufficient funding. Nearly two years later, South Korea’s ambition appears to be on track.
Two national companies, Samsung Biologics and Celltrion, are already considered world leaders, especially in the biosimilar industry. In 2013, Celltrion launched the world’s first antibody biosimilar, marking the start of a new era for the biotechnology industry by opening the doors to the USD 6+ billion global market that the reference brand for infliximab, Janssen’s Remicade, had at the time.
South Korea’s biotech industry made a leap during the pandemic, securing contract manufacturing agreements for COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. SK Bioscience was chosen to produce the vaccines of Novavax and AstraZeneca, and Samsung Biologics – already with a long-term deal with Lilly to produce its pipeline monoclonal antibody bamlanivimab – is performing fill and finish for Moderna, and has manufacturing COVID therapies for Eli Lilly, GSK/Vir and AstraZeneca.
According to Samsung Biologics’ CEO, John Rim, what lays behind his company’s success is straightforward: unrivaled speed.
“[Samsung Biologics is] able to build facilities faster than any other player in the industry. [The company] has a phenomenal ability to rapidly carry out technology transfers; our average timeframe is three to four months compared to an industry standard of six to eight. Even during the COVID pandemic, we were able to complete the tech transfer for Moderna’s vaccine within three months and gain approval from the Korean government within five months,” Rim told PharmaBoardroom.
Samsung Biologics is a sister company of Samsung Electronics, the second largest company in the smart phone industry after Apple. “[The] Samsung Group is committed to building up its biopharma business in the same way as it did with its electronics business,” he explained, adding that 12 of the top 20 global pharma companies currently partner with the Korean player.
The CEO argues that, in the past, pharma companies looked at CMO partnerships as a risk mitigation exercise, however, the industry has realized that its core competencies are in R&D rather than building, operating and maintaining manufacturing facilities, thus opening doors for companies like Samsung and those in the greater South Korean ecosystem.
“Samsung Biologics has been able to perform very well against this backdrop, having noted right at the outbreak of the pandemic that this was going to be a long-term issue on which we needed to move quickly. For example, we rapidly set up a war room for the supply chain management organisation to ensure consistency of supply. From our base in Songdo International Business District (Songdo IBD), we have a critical mass of companies, including Saint-Gobain, Cytiva, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Celltrion, which helps secure this supply chain,” Rim said.
Asked about the government’s ambitious strategy, Rim argued that “while I cannot speak to the Korean government’s specific aims, I can say that the country is continuing to build a strong hub in biotechnology, particularly around Songdo IBD with a critical mass of companies establishing strong footprints. This trend looks set to continue as people live longer, technology improves, and incomes rise.”