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The Taiwanese pharmaceutical industry has reached a crucial tipping point: After many years of building up an impressive resource base, from world-class research institutes, universities, and scientists to pharmaceutical entrepreneurs and internationally competitive companies, the industry is finally ready to take advantage of the wave of enthusiasm and interest surrounding pharma and biotech that is sweeping the nation. In March 2009, Taiwan's current president, Ying-jeou Ma, announced that healthcare and biotech would be two of six sectors selected by the government to bolster and diversify the Taiwanese economy. As the Taiwanese pharmaceutical sector develops and strengthens, the world holds its breath, waiting to see what is possible from this small island nation.
From the Rising Sun series, courtesy of Taiwanese artist Patrick Lee
Several factors have led to this exciting momentum in Taiwan. The first of these is the government's drive to develop what it calls the country's "biotech" sector. Perhaps a little confusingly, the term biotech is used by the Taiwanese government not only to describe biotechnology, but also traditional pharma and medical devices. This year the government announced its "Diamond Action Plan for Biotech Takeoff", an ambitious plan to fill the gaps that are currently visible in Taiwan's pharmaceutical sector.
The minister in charge of this plan, Jin-fu Chang, explains the government's hopes for its implementation: "Taiwan has been trying to get involved in the biotechnology industry for decades and we have been trying to figure out the missing links. We think that translational medicine is one thing we should work more on. We have also been trying to form an FDA-like organization, which we now finally have. It is responsible for effective regulatory review and regional harmonization because so many companies here are looking to do business on the other side of the strait. We also need to have biotech clusters. We plan to have one in Nangang and we already have one in the south of Taiwan. These will work together with a superincubator center, which provides intellectual property help to the industry. Finally, the last piece is the megafund or bio venture capital fund. The government will contribute 40 percent and the remaining 60 percent will come from the private sector. The total size of the total fund will be $60 billion NT (US$18.7 billion)."
A comprehensive review of the strengths and weaknesses of the Taiwanese biotech sector and the plan to aid its development is already well under way. Having realized that Taiwan's level of basic research was already very high, the government has put a lot of effort into building the country's translational capability, to move this basic research towards commercialization. One of the key institutes driving this activity is the Development Center for Biotechnology (DCB). Johnsee Lee is chairman of DCB, and recently came to this position after many successful years as president of ITRI (Industrial Technology Research Institute), one of Taiwan's most important basic research institutes. In this new role, he hopes to strengthen DCB as the second step in developing a productive pharmaceutical industry: "As DCB is playing the second leg in bridging basic research and commercialization, we need more international collaborations, good business teams, people who understand basic research, as well as the market and potential healthcare implications."
President Ma with Johnsee Lee, Chairman of the DCB, at the opening of Bio Taiwan 2010.