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Jan 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 1)

Korea Lays Groundwork for Future Success

With Gov’t Funding, R&D Clusters, and VC Growth, There Is a Chance for a Viable Presence

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    KRIBB performs basic research, builds infrastructure, formulates policy, and also coordinates international collaborations.

    In a series of recent articles, the restructuring of the global pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry was examined; more specifically, the effect of multinational corporations and Western research institutions, which have invested heavily in major facilities and established key ventures in the major Asian countries, was reviewed.

    Singapore, for example, has focused on multinational companies and alliances with major research universities (see GEN, April 15, 2005), while Taiwan has promoted technological innovation by its small and medium enterprises with the support of government-financed research organizations (see GEN, April 1, 2006) and acquisition of foreign technology. China is a major destination for multinationals that have combined manufacturing facilities and R&D laboratories in an effort to gain a market niche in the expanding Chinese economy (see GEN, April 15, 2007).

    South Korea, which has become a significant force in steel production, consumer electronics, and computer chips, is now engaged in a serious effort to be a major competitor in the biotechnology industry.

  • Government Vision

    In the late 1980s, the Korean government decided that biotechnology was one of the key industrial technologies for the future. In 1994, it established a plan—Biotech 2000—a major initiative to promote R&D, build up the scientific infrastructure, and promote commercial applications.

    The initiative lasted from 1994–2001 with a budget that increased from $110 million in 1998 to $189 million in 2001. Major partners in this effort were the large industrial conglomerates (known as chaebols) who saw this as an opportunity to diversify into the biomedical and agro/food sectors.

    A series of events, however, affected the implementation of Biotech 2000. First, the chaebols became disenchanted with the lack of profits from biotechnology, while a new administration withdrew its support from the chaebols when the technology bubble burst in 2001–2002. Finally, the excitement of revolutionary new therapies based on stem cells waned when it was reported that the cloning of embryonic stem cells by Professor Hwang Woo-Suk of Seoul National University was fraudulent.

    Then, in 2006, the government launched Bio-Vision 2016. The plan’s objectives were to establish a biotechnology-based economy in ten years, putting Korea in seventh place in biotechnology worldwide, from its current position of 14. This would increase its share of that market from $2.9 billion in 2005 to $65 billion in 2016.

    The Bio-Vision initiative has four components. A restructuring of government biotechnology programs; a strengthening of the scientific infrastructure with an emphasis on bioinformatics, nanobiotechnology, and synthetic biology; and globalization of the biotechnology industry including start-up companies, the recruitment of multinationals, and the creation of bioclusters are key aspects of the initiative. In addition, there is a strengthening of the regulatory and legal systems along with increased public information efforts.

    Additionally, the program has two novel features. One, is an emphasis on interdisciplinary research and its industrial applications as indicated by the term bioconvergence (the integration of biology, bioinformatics, and nanotechnology). The second, is an effort to bring together research, company creation, and regional economic development through bioclusters. Several government ministries are charged with this effort, including the Ministry of Knowledge and Economy, and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology.

    The Bio-Vision initiative started out with a budget of $720 million for R&D and $230 million for infrastructure in 2007, with a projected rise to $1.67 billion for R&D and $690 million for infrastructure by 2016. The total budget for nine years is projected at $15.56 billion.

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