Biotech should focus on niche fields: pundits

By Richard Pearson, The China Post

Two of Taiwan’s leading authorities on biotechnology, Thomas Shen and Johnsee Lee, recently spoke with members of the press and offered their views on the continuing evolution of biotech here. Taiwan’s government leaders began to show strong interest in biotechnology in the early-80s leading to the establishment of the Development Center for Biotechnology in 1984 and in 1991 the government’s Six-year National Development Plan gave support to biotech. According to Shen, founder head of Apex Biotechnology, Taiwan started out in biotech early but fell behind on the research end and is now trying to play catch up with more established and better funded players like Singapore and the United States. Rather than trying to develop a biotechnology industry that can rival those of the United States or Europe with their large drug companies such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline the future for Taiwan’s biotech industry may lie in specialization in small areas of biotech research. While American biotechnology is very advanced and can focus on a broad range of challenges, argues Shen, Taiwan should seek out small niche fields that it can develop to a high-level and come out the leader in. “Taiwan should play an essential part of the value chain and do it very well so that we become an indispensable part of the international process”, said Lee, vice president of the Industrial Technology Research Institute and general director of the Biomedical Engineering Center.

Lee and Shen did point out however that one possible area Taiwan could not only develop but potentially gain the lead in is the application of traditional Chinese medicine and medical knowledge to current biotech research. The Ministry of Economic Affairs sees potential in Chinese medicine research and has launched a development plan that will invest NT$3.5 billion into the field. According to Shen, Chinese medicine is a very promising niche for the island and one that both Taiwan and mainland China can lead the world in.

Lee said that Taiwan has the historical data and raw materials to study Chinese medicine. Even with the promise of Chinese medicine and the support of the government funding remains a difficult issue. A significant impediment to the biotechnology industry internationally is the time and expense that must be devoted to research with no promise of an eventual profit. Even in the U.S. it is estimated that no more than 5 percent of biotechnology firms are profitable leading many to question the wisdom of investing in biotech. According to Shen reluctance on the part investors remains a crucial impediment to the development of biotech here. According to Shen, “Taiwan’s investors are very short term and nearsighted.”

With local investors remaining unconvinced, government interest becomes even more crucial. According to Lee, the government has been supportive of biotech. “I think that the government is pushing pretty hard, biotechnology is not something that you can come by in one day”, he said. According to Lee, the government is working to set up 3 to 4 biotechnology research parks around the island hoping to duplicate the success it experienced in computer technology with the science park located at Hsinchu.